Parashat Bechukotai begins with the blessings that will follow if the Children of Israel obey God’s laws, and the horrible punishments that will follow if they do not. There are three or four blessings per verse for 8 verses, then three or four curses per verse for 23 verses – a ratio of 2.9 curses to every blessing. It gets worse: later on, in Parashat Ki Tavo, the curses from Mount Ebal outnumber the blessings from Mount Gerizim by 3.9 to one!
In each case, the blessings and curses follow a passage in which a series of commandments is set out in detail. According to Rabbi Gunther Plaut this is a familiar pattern in the ancient Middle East, from the Sumerian Code of Lipit-Ishtar to the Code of Hammurabi – a legal section followed by the promise of blessings and curses. But in the case of Bechukotai and Ki Tavo, the curses have a peculiar flavour, more vicious and more emotionally charged than most accounts of the punishments that God reserves for sinners. They are so emotionally charged that they actually sound like a rejected lover cursing the unfaithful beloved. Some of the blessings also have an echo of the lover and beloved, such as “I will walk about in your midst, I will be for you as a God and you will be for me as a people” (Lev. 26:12).
Why the affectionate language of the lover and the fulminations of the spurned lover? The explanation seems to me to relate to the last verse of Chapter 26, after the blessings and curses: “These are the laws, rules and instructions that the Eternal God gave between himself and the Children of Israel …” Between? We are used to hearing of the covenant between God and Israel, but this is not about signs or covenants, it is about laws. Normally we talk about laws given by God to Israel, not given by God between God and Israel. We never talk about laws being given by Parliament between Parliament and the people of the UK!
Here, however, the language is entirely appropriate. The laws that God gave to the Children of Israel are much more than laws given by a just God to govern the world or by a protecting God in our interest. They are indeed laws made between God and Israel, laws that are intrinsic to the covenant between God and the People of Israel. Obeying those laws, doing mitzvot, is the only means we have of fulfilling our part of the covenant.
In Isaiah we read, “You are my witnesses – declares the Eternal – and I am God” (Isaiah 43:12). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai interpreted this to mean: If you give witness to Me, then I am God. If you are not My witnesses, then I am not, as it were, God (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 12:6). The covenant involves us reaching up to God by doing mitzvot and God reaching down to us and enabling us to live and to rejoice in the day that God has made. If we do not perform our part of the covenant, God cannot perform the reciprocal part. God is bereft.
Robert Stone is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and Finchley Reform Synagogue and a Trustee of Tzedek.