If you follow my decrees and you observe my commands and do them, then I will give your rains in their season, and the land will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:3-4)
So God’s list of rewards begins in the Torah portion Bechukotai, the last in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and continues with blessings of ample food, safety, victory in battle with foreigners, fertility, and so on. All of them are about material life in this world, except possibly for the last:
And I will set my mishkan among you, and my soul will not gag over you. And I will walk around among you, and I will be a god for you, and you will be my people. (Leviticus 26:11-12)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place; sanctuary built for God.
The word mishkan usually refers to a physical place of worship. But it could also refer to God dwelling in the hearts of the Israelites. Walking around and being a god could mean God’s appearances as a pillar of cloud and fire and God’s visible miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But it could also mean the presence of God that the Israelites feel in their hearts.
A list of punishments follows, beginning:
But if you reject my decrees, and if your soul gags over my laws, so that you do not do all my commands, violating my covenant, I for my part will do this to you: I will assign terror over you, the consumption and the fever … (Leviticus 26:15-16)
There are more curses than blessings, in an escalating series of material, physical disasters. Each round of curses is threatened if the people continue to disobey and reject God. The fifth and final round of curses begins with cannibalism due to starvation, and ends:
And you will perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you. (Leviticus 26:38)
I always read these lists grimly, since I know that life is more complicated than behaving well to get ice cream from Daddy—er, God. Bad things do happen to good people, even to obedient religious people, as the book of Job illustrates.
How can we reconcile the lists in Bechukotai with reality?
Collective instead of personal carrots
This week’s portion, Bechukotai, uses the second person plural, so one could argue that although individuals are not rewarded and punished as promised, the Israelite people as a whole are. (Judging by what happened over the centuries to the Israelites, and to the Jews after them, the people must have been extraordinarily dedicated to disobeying God.)
But this explanation falls apart in Ki Tavo, the similar portion in Deuteronomy, where the rewards and punishments are expressed in the second person singular, making them personal.
Carrots after death
Bechukotai and Ki Tavo frustrate commentators who believe that the real rewards and punishments come after death. 15th-century commentator Abravanel asked: “Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things, as mentioned in his comment, and omit spiritual perfection and the reward of the soul after death—the true and ultimate goal of man? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgement in the afterlife.”1
In fact, the idea that souls survive death did not appear in Jewish writings until the book of Daniel, written in the second century B.C.E., well after Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Before Daniel, the Hebrew Bible assumed that when the body died, the soul went to a shadowy, perhaps metaphorical, underground realm called Sheol where they were unconscious. No rewards or punishments were possible for souls after death.
The two Torah portions also frustrate those who, like me, believe that doing the right thing leads to psychological rather than material rewards. Good people feel inner satisfaction; in biblical terminology, they walk with God. Bad people, on the other hand, are chronically dissatisfied.
The final blessing in Bechukotai, in which God says “I will walk around among you,” was some consolation to the 15th-century author of Akedat Yitzchak, who valued communion with God:
“Indeed, the spiritual bliss whose source is the Torah and the reward of the Divine commandments, are more than amply recorded in the frequent accounts throughout the Torah of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) resting in our midst and in the ongoing communion with the Divine thus attained by us … How could the critics fail to perceive the intensity of the Divine communion and the spiritual wealth attained by members of our nation while still dwelling in this ephemeral world …”2
In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, the result of a course of action is sometimes called its “fruit”.3 So when I looked for metaphors among the carrots and sticks in Bechukotai, I noticed fruit trees. The first blessing with which God rewards the obedient in this week’s Torah portion includes: … the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:4)
The second curse includes: … your power will be poured out in vain, and your land will not give its produce, and the trees of the land will not give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:19-20)
In Bechukotai the presence or absence of fruit seems literal.
Trees flourishing and barren also appear in the hafatarah reading from the book of Jeremiah that accompanies this Torah portion.
Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind
And makes flesh his strength;
He turns away his mind from God.
He is like a bare tree in the desert valley … (Jeremiah 17:5)
Blessed is the man who trusts in God …
He is like a tree planted by water …
In a year without rain lo yidag,
And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
lo yidag (לֺא יִדְאָג) = it does not worry, it is not anxious, it does not feel dread. (Lo = not. Yidag is comes from the same root as dagah, דְּאָגָה = anxiety.)
Jeremiah takes a more sophisticated position, using fruit trees as metaphors for human beings and shifting the focus from obeying God to trusting God.4
Bechukotai’s promise that one reward for religious observance is that God will “walk around among you” may or may not mean that following God’s rules yields an inner reward. Jeremiah’s reframing, in which the reward for trusting God is a fruitful life without anxiety, comes closer to promising an inner reward. But is there a more definite biblical support for the idea that the reward for ethical behavior is inside us?
Next week I will look at the evidence in Psalm 73.
- 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 572.
- 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, Akedat Yitzchak, Sha’ar 70, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, ibid., pp. 575-576.
- Especially in Psalms and Proverbs: Psalms 58:11, 92:13-14, 104:13; Proverbs 1:31, 8:18-20, 11:30, 12:14, 13:2, 18:20-21, 31:31.
- See my posts Haftarat Bechukotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me and Bechukotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.