Why should the Israelites obey God’s rules? The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Bechukotai (“By my decrees”), answers the question with a carrot and a stick.
The carrot is that if they do obey, God will reward them with abundant produce from their crops; no attacks by wild beasts; either peace, or victory if they choose to go to war; and God’s presence in their midst.1
The stick is much longer.
But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your soul is nauseated by my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant; then I on my part will do this to you: (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:14-16)
The first punishments God threatens are disease and raids by neighboring countries. If the Israelites continue disobeying and gagging on God’s rules, the second round of punishments will be drought and crop failure.
Then the Torah changes the unacceptable attitude from nausea to either perverse opposition or disbelief. God introduces the third round of punishments with:
And if you walk keri with me, and you are not willing to heed me, then I will go on striking at you … (Leviticus 26:21)
keri (קֶרִי) = in perverse opposition; only by chance.
The word keri occurs only seven times in the Hebrew Bible, all seven in the Torah portion Bechukkotai. Most older translations use the English word “contrary”, but some commentators posit that keri comes from the verb karah (קָרָה) = befell unexpectedly, happened by chance.2
When people in the Torah “walk with God”, they are following God’s rules and desires. In this week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites walk in opposition to God, as if what happens to them comes only by chance and not by God’s will, then they will suffer. In the third round of threats, God promises that wild beasts will kill their children and their cattle, and their roads will become empty.
The fourth round of threats begins:
And if these do not make you accept my discipline, and you walk keri with me, then I, even I, will walk by keri with you, and I will strike you … (Leviticus 26:23-24)
Now God promises to oppose the Israelites and/or treat them as irrelevant to God’s will. At this point God will let the enemies of the Israelites besiege their cities. Everyone who crowds inside the city walls for shelter will be afflicted with disease and starve for lack of bread.
The fifth and final round of punishments also uses the word keri.
And if despite this you do not heed me, and you go with me by keri, then I will walk with you with a fury of keri, and I will punish you … (Leviticus 26:27-28)
This time the starving Israelites will eat their own children, while God stands by. God will destroy their hilltop shrines (because worshiping other gods is one of the ways the Israelites keep breaking God’s commandments). Then their enemies will destroy their cities, the land will be desolated, and the people will be scattered in other countries.3
Modern scholars estimate that the list of blessings and punishments in this week’s Torah portion, like much of the book of Leviticus, was written sometime after the war of 589-587 BCE, when the Babylonian army finished conquering the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, and deported most of its upper classes and craftsmen. (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire a century and a half before.) So the five levels of punishment had already happened when God’s speech was written.
By framing history as God’s prediction (or threat) at Mt. Sinai, the Torah drives home the idea that the downfall of the Israelites of Judah was their own fault. God warned them, but they continued to walk keri with God, so of course they suffered the ultimate punishments.
Guilt is more effective than fear
The Torah portion Bechukkotai also shows that escalating punishments do not work. The only effects of experiencing the helplessness of being without God’s protection are misery and excessive fear.
And I will bring the remainder of you faint-hearted into the lands of your enemies. The sound of blowing leaves will pursue them, and they will flee as if fleeing from the sword, and they will fall although nobody is pursuing. (Leviticus 26:36)
The image of running away from blowing leaves (commonly translated into English as “a driven leaf”) emphasizes that the deported Israelites live in a state of continuous anxiety.
Then you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up. (Leviticus 26:38)
Being lost and eaten up may refer to death, or it may refer to assimilation. Either way, there would be no more Israelites. Nevertheless, God expects some of the exiles to feel not only faint-hearted, but also guilty.4 Once they recognize their guilt, there is hope for them.
Then they must confess their guilt and the guilt of their forefathers in failing to do their duty; that they were undutiful to me, and also that they walked by keri with me. Indeed, I myself will walk by keri with them and I will bring them into the land of their enemies; perhaps that is when their uncircumcised heart will become humbled, perhaps that is when they will make amends for their wrongdoing. (Leviticus 26:40-41)
When the diminishing Israelites do confess and repent, they “circumcise” their hearts, making them open and sensitive to God’s word. At that point God promises to remember the covenant with their ancestors Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and with the people God rescued from Egypt.5 The implication is that then God will rescue the remaining Israelites from Babylon and bring them back to their former land.
Why do the Israelites disobey and oppose their God?
Here are my favorite theories:
- When people stop studying God’s rules, they no longer understand them, so they don’t bother to obey them. They justify their disobedience by deciding they are superior to those who blindly obey stupid laws. Only someone who understands the reasons for divine laws can obey them with love.6
- When bad things happen, it is human nature to blame someone else and avoid introspection. We might blame other people, or we might blame God. Since we do not change our own behavior, nothing changes in the world. 7
- When we are taught only in terms of physical reward and punishment, we develop an unhealthy relationship with the authority figure. Either we mindlessly do anything to win the authority figure’s approval, or we live in continual fear, or we come to despise the authority figure and rebel against the rules.
What changes their minds about God?
Fear leads to temporary obedience, and reward and punishment work on a simple level with non-human animals and small children. But as humans learn to think, we make their own judgments about right and wrong. In this week’s Torah portion, people return to obeying and trusting God only when they come to believe they did something wrong, and feel guilty about it. Then they want to make amends.
The very act of making amends by returning to their religion gives the Israelites meaning and purpose in their lives. They can once again feel God’s presence in their midst.
I know I will never be a wholly observant Jew. Jewish halakhah, the “way to walk”, is a corpus of religious laws refined over the centuries from the Talmud’s discussions of the laws in the Torah. Some of these laws remain meaningless to me even when I study them. Therefore (since I do not belong to a tight orthodox community where strict observance is at least good manners) I do not bother to observe those particular rules.
But I work hard to do the morally right thing, and whenever I realize I have failed, I feel guilty, and I do what I can to atone. I find that virtue really is its own reward, bringing me courage and calmness even in adverse physical circumstances. I also persist in noticing all creation with awe and wonder, which leads to gratitude and the feeling that life is meaningful. Because I work on obeying moral principles and maintaining an attitude of awe and gratitude, I believe I am serving God with joy, not walking with God by keri.
May each of us find meaning in life. And may we treat one another with mutual respect, so we can avoid the dead end of an authority figure commanding obedience—or else.
- See my post Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.
- 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that keri means unintentionally; going with God unintentionally is a form of rejection (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 951). 21st-century scholar Robert Alter translated keri as “encounter (against)” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 663). The Chabad translation is “happenstance” in www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9927.
- Leviticus 26:16-33.
- Leviticus 26:39.
- Leviticus 26:42, 26:45.
- Based on Hirsch, ibid., pp. 944-945; and Or Torah (Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, 1804), translation by Arthur Green, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 310-311.
- Based on Adin Even-Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 271.