Bechukotai: Casual Relationships

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Twice a year, before Shavuot and Rosh Hashana, we read the tochecha, the list of dire consequences that will, G-d forbid, befall the Jewish people if they do not follow the chukim and mitzvot of the Torah. Panic, economic ruin, cannibalism, death, destruction and exile are spelled out in vivid detail. While we are told that we must, in general, follow the chukim and mitzvot, surprisingly, the Torah tells us very little about exactly which horrible sins will cause such bloodcurdling consequences. No mention is made of idolatry, adultery, murder, sinat chinam or the other terrible sins on which our Sages have laid the blame for past misfortunes. The only hint of a specific sin is neglect of shmitah, whose laws, not coincidentally, form the preceding topic in the Chumash. “Thus, as long as it is desolate, the land will enjoy the sabbatical rest that you would not give it when you lived there” (Vayikra 27:35). Yes, it is true the land will finally be able to recover from all the missed shmitot, but it is hard to imagine that this is the cause of all these horrors.

One of the features of good literature—and the Torah, while also much, much more, is surely that—is that the final chapters of a book relate to the theme introduced at the beginning of the book.

Perhaps the essence of Vayikra can be summed up, not only by the opening chapters of the book, but by the opening words. “Vayikra el Moshe, and G-d called to Moses”. Our Masoretic text has the aleph of vayikra in small print, allowing—nay, encouraging—us to read the word as vayikar, a chance encounter. This is, as Rashi explains, the nature of G-d’s encounter with pagan prophets such as Bil’am. In contradistinction to Jewish prophets, whom G-d calls with love, pagan prophets (yes, such a concept existed) are “temporary” encounters that radiate impurity. Thus, the central book of the Chumash focuses on whether our relationship with G-d is one of permanence, vayikra, or of a fleeting temporary nature, to be used when convenient, vayikar. We can now readily understand why sefer Vayikra devotes so much space to the concept of the functioning of the Mishkan, the symbol of the permanent presence of G-d in this world.

“And if you do not obey Me, v’halachthem imi b’keri, and walk with Me with casualness” (Vayikra 27:27). Rashi, not surprisingly, connects the words vayikar and keri, thus translating it as “temporary”. The Torah warns us not to walk with G-d “on occasion”. This phrase of “walking b’keri” appears five times in the tochecha, indicating its primary importance.

Surely, the Torah demands that our relationship with G-d be one of permanence, of vayikra. We must daven not only when it is convenient, perform acts of chesed only when we are in the right mood or learn Torah when we can fit it into our schedule. We must observe the mitzvot and chukim even when they are inconvenient, and truth be told, they sometimes are. The Torah demands a daily performance from each of us, and there are no “vacations” allowed. G-d calls unto us, Vayikra, and we must be ready to answer, “Hineni, here I am, ready to carry out Your will”. Yet so often our response is, “Vayikar, I’m coming”, with all its delays and even cancellations.

Of course, two can play this game, so the Torah warns us that if we walk with G-d b’keri, casually, then “I, too will walk with you with casualness” (27:34 and again in 27:27). G-d too can, kivyachol, be too busy to deal with our concerns.

A world in which G-d is directly involved on occasion, when he manifests hester panim, a hidden face, is a truly scary world, fraught with all kinds of horrific consequences. The tochecha should not be understood as a punishment, but rather as the natural consequence of treating G-d casually. We must hear the calling of G-d, “Vayikra”, so that the blessings of the Torah will be fulfilled speedily in our days.