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Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: A Casual Curse

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra
Unlocking the Torah Text - Vayikra

Context

As Parshat Bechukotai and the book of Vayikra draw to a close, God delivers a stinging rebuke and warning to the Israelites. Known as the Tochacha Haketana, the small rebuke (in contrast to a second, larger rebuke found in the book of Devarim), this section contains a series of frighteningly prophetic descriptions of the tragedies that will befall the nation should they fail to follow God’s ways.

At the core of this tochacha, a word is found that, in this conjugation, appears nowhere else in the Torah text. Here, however, this term, keri, is repeated no less than seven times within the span of twenty sentences. According to most authorities (see below), this term apparently connotes “casualness” or “happenstance” and is derived from the root kara, to happen.

The passages of the Tochacha within which the term keri appears are:

1. “And if you will walk with me keri…”

2. “And if in spite of these things you will not be chastised towards me, and you will walk with me keri…”

3. “And then I [God], too, will walk with you with keri…”

4. “And if with all this you will not hearken unto Me, and you will walk with Me with keri…”

5. “And I will walk with you with a fury of keri…”

6. “And they will confess their sin and the sin of their fathers, for the treachery with which they have betrayed Me, and also for having walked with Me with keri.”

7. “And I, too, shall walk with them with keri…”

Questions

By using the term keri so prominently at both ends of the Tochacha’s equation, in both the description of the nation’s possible transgression and in the description of God’s possible response, the Torah apparently emphasizes a critical idea, central to the very nature of sin and punishment. If we could only understand this concept, the text seems to say, we could finally recognize where we go wrong. We could strike to the core of our failures and their consequences, finding a way to break the recurring, tragic cycle that plagues our relationship with the Divine.

And yet, the text remains frustratingly unclear.

Why, at this point, does the Torah suddenly introduce, for the first and only time, the word keri?

Once introduced, why is this term repeated so often in such a short span of text?
Above all, within the context of the Tochacha, in the realm of both sin and punishment, what does the word keri actually mean?

Approaches

A

Confronted with this puzzling term and its use in the Tochacha, numerous commentaries propose a wide variety of interpretations.

Both Rashi and his grandson, the Rashbam, for example, introduce a basic translation upon which most commentaries build. These scholars translate the word keri to mean “casual” or “inconsistent” (derived, as stated above, from the root kara, to happen). If the nation sins by worshiping God in an erratic, inconsistent manner, Rashi and the Rashbam explain, God will respond in kind and will relate to the nation haphazardly and unpredictably, as well.

A number of other commentaries, including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ohr Hachaim, choose a related but different path. The term keri, these scholars maintain, describes a flawed world outlook that can lead to immeasurable sin. An individual who sees the world in a fashion of keri perceives no pattern to the events unfolding around him. In place of Divine Providence, this individual observes only random coincidence; and in place of punishment for sin, accidental misfortune. For such an individual,tshuva (return to the proper path) becomes increasingly unattainable. In a haphazard world governed by arbitrary forces, after all, there exists little incentive for change.

Going a step further, the Ohr Hachaim perceives in God’s reaction – “And then I [God], too, will walk with you with keri…” – a carefully calibrated “measure for measure” response to the nation’s failing. If the people refuse to see a divinely ordained pattern in the world around them, God will withdraw, making it even more difficult for them to perceive His presence. The punishments to follow will seem even more random, bearing no obvious connection to the nation’s sins. The people’s failure to recognize God’s imminence will thus prove frighteningly prophetic, for God will respond with “distance.”

For his part, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch interprets the sin associated with the word keri as “indifference” to God’s will. Those guilty of this transgression find considerations other than God’s will central to their lives and their sporadic obedience to Torah law is thus purely coincidental. God responds to this sin in kind, says Hirsch, by removing His Divine protection from the nation and allowing the natural course of world history to determine their fate. The welfare of the Jewish people will be advanced only coincidentally, when that welfare happens to correspond to the interests and needs of the powerful nations around them.

Finally a group of other scholars, Onkelos chiefly among them, diverge from the above explanations entirely and explain the termkeri to mean “stubbornness” or “harshness.” If the nation stubbornly refuses to obey based upon God’s law, God’s response will be harsh and unforgiving.

B

A clearer understanding of the puzzling term keri and its repeated use in the Tochacha can be gained if we consider the basic approach of Rashi and the Rashbam (who interpret the term to mean a casual approach to God’s will) in light of the “rules” that govern our own life experiences.

Many years ago, I asked the participants in one of my synagogue classes to name the one most important component in any successful interpersonal relationship. Expecting a plethora of suggestions, I was surprised when they unanimously responded with the one word which I had earlier defined for myself as my own answer: trust.

Our associations with each other, from partnerships to friendships to marriages, can endure many blows and setbacks. One wound, however, invariably proves fatal: the total loss of trust. When mutual trust is gone and cannot be regained; when the relationship no longer feels safe and secure; when each participant no longer believes that the other consistently has his partner’s best interests at heart, the relationship is doomed.

God thus turns to the Israelites and proclaims: “And if you will walk with me keri…”

If I find that you are deliberately inconsistent in your commitment to Me; if I find that you are only at My door when you choose to be; if I find that I cannot trust you to seek My presence and relate to Me continually; then I will respond in kind…

“And then I [God], too, will walk with you with keri

You will no longer be able to count on My continuing presence in your lives. I will distance Myself and not be there when you expect Me to be. Our relationship will become casual and inconsistent; all trust will be lost…

God will forgive many failings and sins, but when we lose His trust, the punishments of the Tochacha are the result.

Points to Ponder

The text’s prominent use of the puzzling word keri in the Tochacha brings our study of Vayikra full circle…This complex central book of the Torah, with its disparate laws ranging from minute, mysterious rituals to towering ethical edicts, makes one real demand upon the reader.

We are challenged to earn God’s trust.

Judaism is not a smorgasbord. The Torah emphasizes that we cannot pick and choose the elements of observance that suit our fancy. Each law, from a seemingly minor sacrificial detail to a powerful edict such as “Love your fellow as yourself,” has its place and its purpose. Each halachic element is an essential component in the tapestry of trust meant to be woven between God and his people.

In structure and content, the book of Vayikra reminds us that when we earn God’s trust through faithful adherence to His multifaceted law, we will be able to trust in God’s continued presence within our lives.

© 2014 OU Press