Parashat Bechukkotay concludes the Book of Leviticus – the Book which was traditionally called Torat Kohanim, the Instruction Manual of the Priests: almost the entire Book is dedicated to the Kohanim, their service, and rituals which depend upon them.
This Book concludes with the תּוֹכֵחָה, tocheichah (also spelt תּוֹכָחָה, tochachah), the Admonition:
“If you will walk in My decrees and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give your rains in their appropriate seasons, and the land will give its produce...and I will give peace in the land, and you will lie down with no cause for fear...” (Leviticus 26:3-11) – eleven verses describing the blessings that G-d will shower upon us for obeying His Torah
And then comes the warning and castigation:
“But if you will not listen to Me and will not do all these commandments, and if you will be disgusted by My decrees and your soul rejects My judgements, so as not do all My commandments, violating My Covenant...then I will visit panic upon you, swelling lesions and burning fever...you will sow your seeds in vain and your enemies will eat it...” (Leviticus 26:14-45).
On and on it goes – 30 verses depicting the curses and horrors that await us if we reject the Torah.
It seems clear enough; yet some of the blessings which G-d promises us seem puzzling on closer inspection:
“And I will give peace in the Land, and you will lie down with no one to terrorise you; and I will remove wild animals from the Land, and no sword will pass through your Land. You will chase after your enemies and they will fall before you by the sword – five of you will chase a hundred away, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand away, and your enemies will fall before you by the sword” (vs. 6-8).
First, there is an apparent redundancy in this blessing: “I will give peace in the Land…and no sword will pass through your Land”. If there is peace, then of course no sword will pass through the Land. So why does G-d promise us both?
But more than this: if G-d indeed gives us peace in the Land, and we lie down with no one to terrorise us – then how can we have any enemies to chase away? If there is indeed peace, and no sword passes through our Land, then how can our enemies fall before us by the sword?
Let us begin to answer by turning to Sifra, Bechukkotay 1:1. This Midrash notes that the preceding blessing was, “you will eat your bread to satiety, and you will dwell securely in your Land”, and expounds:
“‘You will dwell securely in your Land’ – in your Land [in the Land of Israel] you will dwell securely, but you cannot dwell securely outside of it. And lest you say, Well, in any event there is food and drink – if there is no peace then there is nothing. And therefore [the verse] says ‘I will give peace in the Land’, teaching that peace is equal to everything. And [the Tanach] similarly says ‘He makes peace and creates evil’ (Isaiah 45:7), teaching that peace is equal to everything”.
And then, addressing the apparent redundancy of “I will give peace in the Land” and “no sword will pass through your Land”, the Midrash continues:
“It is needless to say that no one will come against you to make war; it means that no [foreign army] will even pass through [your Land] to get from one country to another, as they did in the days King Yoshiyahu (Josiah)”.
King Yoshiyahu, who lived and reigned almost four centuries after King David, was killed when Egypt made war against Assyria: Pharaoh Neco traversed Judea to get to Assyria, and killed King Yoshiyahu in Megiddo in northern Israel (2 Kings 23:29), and subsequently reduced Judea to a vassal-state.
The Midrash continues:
“‘You will chase after your enemies and they will fall before you by the sword’ – they will be falling before you, all of them killing each other” (Sifra, Bechukkotay 1:2).
According to this Midrash, there will indeed be peace in Israel – but not necessarily for Jews in other countries.
Rashi cites this Midrash in his commentary; the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban, however, offer a very different explanation:
“I will give peace in the Land” means peace among ourselves, peace between Jews: no Jew will fight against any other Jew; this is the one blessing. Not having external enemies in the Land of Israel is a separate blessing.
And in the event of war, we will carry the war to the enemy, meaning that the battles will be fought on enemy territory, not our own – and even then, our enemies will flee from before us.
The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) also offers this explanation, that “I will give peace in the Land” means that there will be no squabbles among Jews,
But he then suggests a very different explanation, noting the subtle difference in the wording:
“I will give peace in the land (בָּאָרֶץ)…and no sword will pass through your Land (בְּאַרְצְכֶם)”.
According to the Ba’al ha-Turim, בָּאָרֶץ (“in the land”) connotes “in the world”, in contrast to בְּאַרְצְכֶם (“in your Land”), connoting “in the Land of Israel”. Hence, “He promises them that there will be peace throughout the world…the natural way of the world is that when there are wars anywhere in the world, even those who live securely [outside of the war-zone] at the sound of the war; so He concluded by saying ‘you will lie down with no one to terrorise you’”.
This is remarkably prescient: some three centuries ago, the Ohr ha-Chayim recognised that any war, anywhere in the world, potentially destabilises the entire world.
The current war between Russia and Ukraine is but the most recent example: a relatively minor conflict between two nations in eastern Europe has the entire world watching nervously, even from afar.
Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, and unexpectedly determined Ukrainian resistance, have already plunged almost the entire world into economic turmoil, with ever-increasing fears of escalation, up to and including global thermonuclear war.
G-d promises us in His Torah that if we keep His mitzvot in His Land, then He will give peace throughout the world. Not necessarily because the other nations deserve it, but because this is His reward to us, to keep us safe in Israel.
When we are derelict in duty, G-d no longer prevents conflicts. And the obvious corollary is that as long as we do what we are supposed to where we are supposed to be, the G-d will keep the world safe and peaceful.
This is how G-d created His world. The very first word of the Torah, בְּרֵאשִׁית (in the beginning) connotes בִּשְׁבִיל רֵאשִׁית, “for the sake of the beginning”, and both the Torah (Proverbs 8:22) and Israel (Jeremiah 2:3) are called “beginning” (Rashi to Genesis 1:1, loosely following Bereishit Rabbah 1:1 and 1:6).
Hence not just that “in the beginning G-d created the Heavens and the earth”, but also “for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of Israel G-d created the Heavens and the earth”.
Yes, this puts Israel and the Jewish nation at the heart of global events. So curiously, the anti-Semites have it sort-of right: the Jews don’t exactly secretly control the world, but G-d controls the world in His hidden way for the sake of the Jewish nation.
History isn’t random, Israel’s return to its Land isn’t happenstance, and ultimately, G-d directs human events for Israel’s sake.
We ignore this not only at our peril, but at the peril of humanity. In the תּוֹכֵחָה, tocheichah, the Admonition in this final parashah in the Book of Leviticus, G-d uses an unusual word: קֶרִי (keri), whose exact meaning is disputed.
Seven times this word occurs in the tocheichah (Leviticus 26:21, 23, 24, 27, 28, 40, and 41), always in the formulation “to walk in keri”.
The meaning is obscure because this word appears nowhere else in the Tanach. Different commentators offer different explanations, one of which is that the word קֶרִי is a cognate of מִקְרֶה, mikreh, “happenstance”, “coincidence”.
Hence “If you relate to Me as though what happens is merely happenstance, and you will not deign to hearken to Me, then I will add to your plagues sevenfold, as your sins” (v. 21);
“And if despite all this you will not repent to Me but still relate to Me as though all is happenstance, then I will relate to you as though all is happenstance, and I too will smite you sevenfold for your sins” (vs. 23-24).
And so forth with all these instances of קֶרִי.
Because no, history is not קֶרִי, happenstance: events have a reason and a direction. And if we, G-d’s nation, do what He commands us to, then that direction will lead us to peace and harmony.