Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Distance

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Apple in Palm
09 May 2007

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Part One: The Tochacha, 3 Avot, and Eretz Yisrael

Parshat Bechukotai contains the tochacha – the stern warning of Hashem to the Children of Israel, what would happen if we do not uphold the covenant by which Hashem relegated us to the status of His Chosen People.

The tochacha is presented as a phased process, where the magnitude of pain intensifies in accordance to the depths into which we sink.

But little could the Jews of the time have imagined, even when shuddering at the prospect of the punishments they heard, that the actualization would be far worse than the warning. As in our time, when all the ghastly details of the tochacha were experienced together, moment by moment, in the extermination camps of the bnei Aysav of Europe.

I would like to focus on a specific verse in the tochacha, Vayikra 26:42.

וזכרתי את בריתי יעקוב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכר והארץ אזכר

“And I shall recall my covenant (brit) with Ya’akov and even my covenant with Yitzchak and even my covenant with Avraham; and I shall recall the land (Eretz Yisrael)”.

  1. Why is the order of the forefathers chronologically inverted. The pasuk begins with the third generation – Ya’akov, then the second generation – Yitzchak, and only then to the first generation – Avraham.
  2. The subject of the pasuk is the patriarchs, why then does the pasuk end by mentioning “the land” – Eretz Yisrael?
  3. The message of the pasuk is optimistic, why does it appear in the harsh tochacha?

I suggest:

The word “brit” (covenant) used in the pasuk, refers to its obvious meaning – brit milah, the sign of the covenant between Hashem and Am Yisrael.

The Midrash (Beraysheet parasha 63), states that Yaakov was born without the physical need of a brit milah, which is a rare and even miraculous phenomenon, so Yaakov is mentioned first.

Yitzchak was born physically normal and his brit was performed in its proper halachic time on the eight day, therefore his place in the pasuk follows Yaakov.

However, in contrast to his son and grandson, the brit of Avraham was neither miraculous nor “normal”. Avraham was 99 years old and necessitated a difficult and painful surgical procedure. So much so, that in Parashat Vayeira, Hashem visits Avraham in the spirit of the mitzva of bikur cholim. Hence Avraham’s placement in the pasuk is last for it was neither miraculous nor normal but full of anguish and pain.

In our history, the Jewish nation entered Eretz Yisrael three times: first with Yehoshua bin Nun; then in the time of Ezra and Nechemia who built the second Bet HaMikdash; and the third time in our days, as we return now to Eretz Yisrael.

The entrance of our fathers into Eretz Yisrael in the time of Yehoshua was accompanied with breath-taking miracles: the interruption of the flow in the Jordan river, the victory in Yericho, the liberation of the majority of Eretz Yisrael and many more wonders. This parallels the miraculous sign of the covenant at the birth of Yaakov.

Our return to Eretz Yisrael with Ezra and Nechemia was authorized with a charter presented to us by Cyrus, King of Persia. This was not miraculous, but part of normal relations between nations and parallels the normalcy which surrounded the sign of the covenant of Yitzchak.

However, our present return to Eretz Yisrael is fraught with heartbreak and self sacrifice. Since the creation of the State, the people of Eretz Yisrael have had to contend with an unequal distribution of historical responsibility, when so much is placed on the shoulders of so few.

Since 1948, we have fought seven wars (not to mention the struggle in expelling the British prior to the Medina). In two of the wars – the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War – we fought against the might of the Soviet Union, and the end is not yet in sight. This intense, dramatic and painful period in our history parallels the pain which accompanied Avraham’s entrance into Hashem’s covenant. Avraham was of advanced age, as we are now after 3500 years of history which include 2000 years of galut. Avraham’s brit milah was a most painful experience, just as is our return on the background of the Shoah and the loss of 22,305 soldiers and thousands of civilians in Eretz Yisrael.

It is the parallels between our three arrivals to Eretz Yisrael and the britot of our fathers that the pasuk ends with the words: “and I shall recall the land” – I shall bring you to the land three times like the covenants of Yaakov, Yitzchak and Avraham with miracles, in normalcy and in the last phase of our history in pain and sacrifice.

The association between the land and brit milah is first brought in the Torah in Beraysheet chapter 17, when Hashem commands Avraham and his descendants to perform the brit milah, and in return promises Avraham (verse 8):

ונתתי לך ולזרעך אחריך את ארץ מגריך את כל ארץ כנען לאחזת עולם והייתי להם לאלהים

“And I shall present to you and your descendants after you the land in which you dwell, the whole land of Canaan as an eternal homestead, and I shall be your God”

This pasuk belongs in the tochacha, for it is not a happy one when projecting that in the future the small loyal remnant of God’s Chosen People in Eretz Yisrael will undergo great sacrifices in proving to Hashem that we are worthy of Eretz Yisrael.

Part Two: The Six Day War and Yom Yerushalayim

Were it possible to add chapters to the Tanach, undoubtedly the first would be the miraculous victory of Tzahal in the Six Day War. The victory which resulted in the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount in the holy city of Yerushalayim and over the mountain range of Shechem, Yerushalayim, Bet Lechem and Hevron where our nationhood was forged.

At the outbreak of the war, the Jewish nation was divided. Those who were here, who will never forget being gripped by the fear at what might be awaiting the tiny Jewish State of Israel, followed by the indescribable feelings of salvation at the hand of Hashem, when the Israeli air force in the first two hours of Monday morning destroyed the air forces of all the combined Arab states in the Middle East. And the other part of our nation which were not here, who will never be able to sense the elation felt by those in Eretz Yisrael who put their trust in Hashem’s promise to safeguard his loyal sons and daughters.

In Bamidbar 9:10 regarding the laws of Pesach Sheni:

“Tell the Children of Israel saying: When any of you shall be tamay because of a dead body or on a distant road, whether you or your generations, he may still celebrate God’s Pessach”

Rashi explains that the term “bederech rechoka” (distant on one’s way) does not necessarily mean physically far away from the Bet HaMikdash where one is unable to bring the Pessach sacrifice, but also one who was present on the Temple Mount just outside the threshold of the Bet HaMikdash, that he too is relegated to Pessach Shayni on the 14 of the month of Iyar.

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, author of the classic commentary on the Chumash, the Ba’al Ha’Turim which deals with gematria (numerical equivalents) as well as language usage, writes that the word “bederech” used in the phrase “b’derech rechoka” appears again in the book of Melachim (Kings) 22:53 regarding the evil King Achazyahu son of Achav:

ויעש (אחזיהו בן אחאב) הרע בעיני ה’ וילך בדרך אביו ובדרך אמו ובדרך ירבעם בן נבט אשר החטיא את ישראל

And he (Achazyahu ben Achav) did evil in the eyes of God, and he went in the way of his father and mother (Achav and Eezevel) and in the way of Yeravam ben Navat who caused Israel to sin.

Meaning: The word “bederech” appears in the pasuk of the one who was outside the Bet HaMikdash on the 14 of Nissan, and appears again in the context of the evil Yeravam ben Nevat. What is the Ba’al Haturim telling us?

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 102a relates that Hashem appeared to Yeravam ben Nevat and said:

חזור בך ואני ואתה ובן ישי נטייל בגן עדן אמר לו מי בראש בן ישי בראש אי הכי לא בעינא

“Return in teshuva and we shall walk in Gan Eden, Me and the son of Yishai (King David) and you. Then Yeravam asked, “Who will be first – me or David? And Hashem replied, ‘David.’ To which Yeravam said, “If so then I am not interested in repenting or walking with You in Gan Eden.”

At that moment there was no one farther away from Gan Eden than Yeravam, because he was so close but refused to enter! He did not take advantage of the moment.

So too is the man who is on the Temple Mount on the 14th of Nissan but does not pass the threshold. The Torah by usage of the word ‘bederech’ is informing us that this person is like Yeravam ben Nevat.

With the victory in the Six Day War, Am Yisrael was so close, but did not take advantage of the opportunity. A million Jews could have also come from the galut to settle Yehuda, Shomron, the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights – but they did not come!

We were at the same time so close – but so far!

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.