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Bechukotai: The Blessing

The Parashah is popularly known as the Tochecha, the reproof (more precisely, the minor reproof, as against that in Ki Tavo (Duet.28), the great reproof). But is this title justified, seeing that the Parashah opens with the theme of blessings?

This name reflects a superficial glance at the Parashah, wherein thirty verses consist of reproof or curses as against thirteen of blessings.

Ibn Ezra was one of the first to protest against the misnomer, thus:

“Upright” (26:13)… the empty-headed have asserted that these curses exceed the blessings, but that is not true.

The blessings were stated in a general fashion, the curses in detail, in order to frighten and deter the hearers. A closer look at the text will reveal that it bears me out.

R. N.H. Weisel in his Biur (26:16) elaborates on Ibn Ezra’s viewpoint:

I go further than this and say that the blessings outnumber the curses. If you consider our view of the distribution of the curses, you will infer from the abundance of curses God’s kindness and mercy for His people. Thus, with the blessings God promised that if they followed His statuses, they would immediately enjoy the entire range of infinite blessing. Accordingly, if they disobeyed and violated His covenant, all the curses should likewise materialize immediately. However, the text states that even if they rebelled, they would not be struck by all the curses at once. Rather, first they would suffer minor blows, to deter them and make them repent. If they failed to repent, God would strike them with but one series of curses. If they still refused to repent, God would expose them to the second range of curses. And if they persisted in their rebellion, the third and fourth wave would set in. Only if they still refused to reform, would the major curse materialize.

Our Parashah thus reflects the principle which our sages discerned throughout Scriptures, whereby the measure of Divine Goodness outweighs that of Divine retribution (cf. Yoma 76a).

There is likewise an asymmetry between the prerequisites of the blessings and those of the curses.

Before the blessing the Torah states:

If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments and do them (26:3)

Before the curses the Torah states:

But if you will not hearken to Me, and will not do all these command. (26:14)

And if you shall despise, or if your soul abhor My judgements, so that you will not do all My commandments, but that you break My Covenant. (26:15)

The standards applied to the blessings evidently differ from those relating to the curses. Thus, the curses are not to be administered upon the mere transgression of the laws; only upon despising and abhorring them, as noted by Seforno:

If you shall despise My statutes – beyond mere violation, you will despise them; and if your soul loathe My judgments – consciously… i.e., loathe them as one might willfully spew out something objectionable…

Thus the preconditions of the blessings radically differ from those of the curses.

But the blessings as such (23:1-13) give rise to a different and more complex question, variously posed by our commentators:

R. Yosef Albo, in his Sefer HaIkkarim 39,4: Jewish authorities throughout the ages have never ceased puzzling why the Torah omits to specify any spiritual benefits alongside the material gains that it lists. Moreover, since the Torah does not mention the spiritual benefits which constitute the principal reward, why does it elaborate the material benefits which are not the main reward?

R. Yizhak Arama, in Akedat Yithak, Behukotai: Adherents of religion who believe in Divine reward and punishment (for those who please or anger God, respectively), assail the Torah’s silence concerning the spiritual remuneration that constitutes the chief aim of the Torah, which holds up transitory, material rewards, as the goal of those obedient to its laws.

R. Yitzhak Abarvanel, Behukotai 26: 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.

Whereas Albo poses this problem within the Jewish context, Abarvanel is concerned with the critique of Judaism by Christian theologians who point to the sublime reward promised in their doctrines, as demonstrating the superiority of their own religion. R. Judah HaLevi in the Kuzari (1, 104) puts in the mouth of the king of the Kazars the arguments of Muslim theologians on this subject. The Kazar king turns to the Jewish philosopher and says:

I note that the reward held out by other faiths are greater and more substantial.

From the context and the gist of the scholar’s reply it is evident that the Kazar king is referring to the afterlife.

The view that the Bible did not subscribe to an afterlife, and that the ancient Israel believer was content with the material boons of timely rain and bountiful crops, and that only after the exile did they substitute the Hereafter, to compensate themselves for the loss of their land, represents a native concept of the formation of religions and human yearnings. Kaufmann in his classic (Hebrew) History of the Israelite Religion (Vol. V, Life and Death), was not the first to refute this and similar fallacies, He states:

The belief in the soul’s separate existence from the body after death is most ancient, and is even claimed to mark the very beginning of the religion. This doctrine is found in the Scriptures as well.

The view that Scripture refrained from affirming the immortality of the soul as a dogma owing to its repudiation of the cult of the dead (especially the Egyptian version) from which Israel was to be weaned is unacceptable. The Torah repudiates paganism in toto ( not only the Egyptian cult of the dead). The view of the individual’s lack of importance in ancient Israel and hence no need for a belief in the eternity of the individual’s soul was felt, is incorrect. We have seen that the individual was considered important.

We cite some of the answers offered by our classical commentators to this problem.

Ibn Ezra (Deut. 32:39): I, even I, am He…I kill and I make alive”: Many claim that life in the Hereafter can be inferred from this verse, since it states first I kill and then I make alive. Similarly, the Lord kills and gives life, He brings down the grave and brings up… (there follow several other verses which allude to the afterlife). But I feel that the Torah was given to all, and not to an individual alone, whereas only one in a thousand van fathom the Hereafter, for it is profound.

But many commentators argue that the Torah does not take account of popular fallacies. Thus, the rejection of anthropomorphism was hardly within the primitive person’s grasp. Yet, the Torah declares “you saw no likeness,” concerning the Revelation on Mount Sinai. Elsewhere we read that the leaders of Israel saw god, and ate and drank (Ex. 24:11), which cannot be taken literally. Here the Torah “Relied upon the intelligent” (Albo ad loc.), without being concerned about possible misunderstanding. Rather it was guided by the principle that the righteous shall walk therein and the wicked stumble therein (Hoshea 14:10). It is inconceivable that such an important principle as the immortality of the soul and the Hereafter should be omitted by the Torah on account of its being beyond the grasp of the uninitiated.

Let us cite Nahmanides’ view on this problem (Ex. 6:2):

And god spoke to Moses:…the reward of virtue and punishment of vice is miraculous. Left to nature or to the constellations, his deeds would neither add to nor detract anything from his fate. Indeed, all reward and punishment in this world promised by the Torah constitutes mysterious miracles. They may appear as natural phenomena, yet in actual fact, they denote reward and punishment. The reason that the Torah elaborates the reward in this world and omits the recompense of the soul in the world of the souls, is because the former is a super-miracle whereas the survival of the soul and its reunion with God is a natural process, whereby the soul returns to its Divine progenitor.

Nahmanides comments similarly on the concept of karet (“cutting off” i.e., premature death) (Lev. 18:29):

“(They) shall be cut off:” …you must realize that the punishment of cutting off the soul implies a firm assurance of the immortality of the soul and of a Divine reward in the Hereafter. By stating “this soul shall be cut off from before Me,” the torah teaches us that only the soul of the sinner is cut off, for its iniquity, but other souls, which have not sinned will live eternally and enjoy the Divine splendor. This is so because the human soul is the lamp of the Lord which He breathed into our nostrils… and so it rests in its natural setting and will not die. It is not composite and thus is not subject to generation and dissolution as are compound substances. Indeed, it is intrinsically imperishable as are the immaterial intelligence’s (i.e., angels).

It is therefore unnecessary for the Torah to state that as a reward for a good deed the soul will live forever. It states rather that as a punishment for transgressing, the soul will become tarnished and defiled and thus cut off from its natural life of eternity. Accordingly, the torah chose the term karet, as with a branch cut off from a tree that brought it forth. As already noted, all the rewards and punishments promised by the Torah are supernatural, mysterious miracles… thus it (the Torah) does not hold out eternity (for the soul) which is natural (and therefore, self-evident).

In our Parasha (26:12), Nahmanides sums up this view briefly:

“And I will walk among you”: The torah does not mention here the eternal life of the soul in the world of the souls and in the Hereafter after the resurrection, for the soul’s endurance is constitutional, as I have explained in the context of karet. It is the punishment which brings about extinction of the guilty souls, whilst the others, by their very nature, live forever.

We have quoted Nahmanides extensively to demonstrate the consistency of his view of immortality as the natural consequence of the soul’s Divine source. Hence the Torah’s silence on immortality, just as it omits to mention other natural phenomena.

The Akedat Yizhak provides a different solution (Sha’ar 70):

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…And so in the present Parashah the cardinal and transcendent reward of the Commandments is held out: “And I will set My dwelling among you…And I will walk among you, and I will be your God” (26:11-12). 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 wherein our souls remain anchored in the crudeness of the earth. How much more so will this come to pass upon man’s separation from the matter. This wondrous message underlines Moses’ declaration: “But you that did cleave to the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day…” – this day, in your this-worldly existence, wherein you are able to experience, the proximity of and communion with God.

The elation and joy caused by the Divine reward of the God fearing already in the present world, as expressed above, recall the Psalmist’s renunciation of all benefits in the present of future worlds, once he has discovered the true reward, thus, But as for me, the nearness of God is my good (73:28).

If, in our earthly lives we experience the proximity of God and even communion with the Divine, how much more so will the soul be able to bask in the Divine Glory in the world to come.

Countering the claim of a superior spiritual reward of the soul in Christian dogma, Abarvanel (following, as often, Akedat Yizhak) retorts as follows:

How can the Gentiles flourish their reward after death, seeing that we Jews attain that (spiritual) bliss and communion with the Divine in this life.

Rambam’s comment in two places deals chiefly with Albo’s second question. Why, at all, did the Torah mention material rewards? In his introduction to Chapter XI (Helek) of Sanhedrin, he states:

The idea behind the material rewards promised in the Torah is as follows. The almighty says to you: If you perform the precepts I shall assist you to carry them out and to perfect yourself through them and remove from you all obstacles in your path. For a man cannot perform the precepts if he is sick, hungry, or thirsty, in the hour of battle or under siege. The Almighty therefore promised that He would rid them of these situations and that they would enjoy health and tranquility, enabling them to perfect their knowledge and merit the Hereafter. These material rewards are thus not an end in themselves but a means. Conversely, if they transgress the Torah, evil would overtake them, preventing them from carrying out the precepts – “because thou did not serve the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things; therefore shall thou serve thy enemy” (Deut. 28:47-48). If you ponder over this deeply, you will discern that the Torah means to tell you the following: If you have performed some of the precepts out of love and by dint of your own efforts, I shall help you to perform all of them and remove any obstacles in your path. But if you forsake and despise them, I shall put obstacles in the way of your performance, till you are deprived of spiritual perfection and immortality. This is the implication of our sages’ dictum: The reward of a precept is a precept.

In his Hilkhot Teshuvah 9,1, Maimonides elaborates on the same theme. (Owing to the importance of Maimonides’ statement, we cite it in full).

It is known that the reward for the fulfillment of the commandments and the good to which we will attain if we have kept the way of the Lord, as prescribed in the law, is life in the world to come, as it is said, “That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days” (Duet. 22:7), while the retribution exacted from the wicked who have abandoned the ways of righteousness prescribed in the Torah is excision, as it is said, “That soul shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him” (Num. 15:31). What then is the meaning of the statement found everywhere in the Torah that if you obey, it will happen to you thus; if you do not obey, it will be otherwise; and all these happenings will take place in this world, such as war and peace; sovereignty and subjection; residence in the Promised Land and exile; prosperity in one’s activities and failure and all the other things predicted in the words of the covenant (Lev. 26, Deut. 28)? All those promises were once truly fulfilled and will again be so. When we fulfill all the commandments of the Torah, all the good things of this world will come to us. When, however, we transgress the precepts, the evils that are written in the Torah will befall us. But nevertheless, those good things are not the final reward for the fulfillment of the commandments, nor are those evils the last penalty exacted from one who transgresses all the commandments. These matters are to be understood as follows: The Holy One blessed be He, gave us this law – a tree of life. Whoever, fulfills what is written therein and knows it with a complete and correct knowledge will attain thereby life in the world to come. According to the greatness of his deeds and abundance of his knowledge will be the measure in which he will attain that life.

The Holy One Blessed be He, has further promised us in the Torah that if we observe its behests joyously and cheerfully, and continually meditate on its wisdom, He will remove from us the obstacles that hinder us in its observance, such as sickness, war, famine, and other calamities; and will bestow upon us all the material benefits which will strengthen our ability fulfill the Law, such as plenty, peace, abundance of silver and gold. Thus we will not be engaged all our days in providing for our bodily needs, but will have leisure to study wisdom and fulfill the commandment and thus attain life in the world to come. Hence, after assurance of material benefits, it is said in the Torah, “And it shall be righteousness to us, if we observe to do all this commandment before the Lord our God as He commanded us” (ibid. 32:15), the true Judge will deprive the foresakers of all those material benefits which only served to encourage them to be recalcitrant, and will send upon them all the calamities that will prevent their attaining the life hereafter, so that they will perish in their wickedness. This is expressed by the Torah in the text: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things, therefore hall you serve your enemy whom the Lord shall send against you” (ibid. 28: 47-48).

Hence, all those benedictions and maledictions promised in the Torah are to be explained as follows: If you have served God with joy and observed His way, He will bestow upon you those blessings and avert you those curses, so that you will have leisure to become wise in the Torah and occupy yourselves therewith, and thus attain life hereafter, and then it will be well with you in the world which is entirely blissful and you will enjoy length of days in an existence which is everlasting. So you will enjoy both worlds, a happy life on earth leading to the life in the world to come. For if wisdom is not acquired and good deeds are not performed here, there will be nothing meriting a recompense hereafter, as it is said, “For there is no work, no device, no knowledge, no wisdom in the grave” (Eccles. 9:10). But if you have forsaken the Lord and have erred in eating, drinking fornication, and similar things, He will bring upon you all those curses and withhold from you all those blessings till your days will end in confusion and terror, and you will have neither the free mind nor the healthy body requisite for the fulfillment of the commandments so that you will suffer perdition in the life hereafter and will thus have lost both worlds – for when one is troubled here on earth with diseases, war or famine, he does not occupy himself with the acquisition of wisdom or the performance of religious precepts by which life hereafter is gained.

(Translated from A Maimonides Reader by I. Twersky)