Author's Note on Parshat Bechukotai
Date: June 1, 2019
27 Iyar 5779
In Parshat Bechukotai, we read that if we follow G-d’s laws we will enjoy G-d’s blessings. However, if we reject G-d’s laws, we suffer severe curses. But what exactly is it that brings on the curses? Surely if we simply err in our observance of G-d’s laws, that will not bring out G-d’s wrath. There are separate punishments as well as atonements associated with correcting those errors. So what is it about our behavior that makes us subject to the horrible curses?
The Torah says that it is when we abhor or reject the laws and try to break our covenant with G-d, that we will suffer from the severest of punishments. Perhaps that type of rejection is alluded to when the Torah tells us that if we act “B’Keri” to G-d, he will act “B’Keri” to us. “Keri” is translated as indifference or casualness.
The word Keri appears seven times in Bechukotai. It starts when we act with Keri and G‑d brings on curses. We experience those curses, continue to act with Keri and then suffer more curses and on it goes. Perhaps the seven references refer us to the seven days of the week – day in and day out, we are indifferent to what is going on around us. Interestingly, Onkelos translates the word “Keri” as “Kashyu”, which is a word referring to stubbornness. Rashi explains that this alludes to the stubbornness we display when we refuse to come near to G-d. So when Onkelos translates Keri as Kashyu, perhaps he is referring to how we behave with a kind of stubborn indifference. That is what brings out G-d’s wrath.
In a well-known poem, Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish poet, wrote that whether we say we love G-d or we fight with G-d, it’s a sign that we “love” G-d in that we want a relationship. But “[i]f you look at the stars and yawn, if you see suffering and don’t cry out, if you don’t praise and you don’t revile, then I created you in vain, says G-d.” It is the stubborn indifference to the world around us and our role in it that causes G-d to act with stubborn indifference to us as well.
So how do we break out of that cycle and repair the relationship? Here, too, Bechukotai gives us a clue. At the end of the curses, G-d tells us that he will not abandon us; he will remember his covenant with Jacob and with Isaac and with Abraham. He deliberately reversed the order of the Patriarchs. Rashi comments on this order and explains how Jacob’s merit alone should redeem us; but if not, then surely Isaac’s merit will work, and if not, then for sure Abraham’s merit is sufficient.
Here is another way to look at this. When I think about the American Civil War, it seems like an event far removed from my life. But when I think about my great aunt, whom I knew as a young man, I recall that she was born 5 years after the Civil War and her parents were very much alive throughout that time in our nation’s history. With this connection, the Civil War is no longer something from a distant past – it transcends its place in a dusty history book, becoming something my family lived through. Tracing my generation back to the Civil War makes it much more vibrant than if I try to find a connection by starting in the distant past.
So by working backwards beginning with Jacob to Isaac to Abraham, G-d is reminding us that our generation is directly linked to the prior generation in a long chain that goes back to Abraham. The generation before us sacrificed for our opportunities and the one before them did the same. We are not just here today and gone tomorrow. We have a mission and purpose in life. So we ought not be stubbornly indifferent to our heritage, our purpose and our relationship to G‑d.