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D'var Torah: Behar-Behukkotai

Behukkotai means “in my laws” and its root is chet-kof. The word chuk, plural chukim, “laws,” is one of several words used to identify the many ordinances mentioned in Leviticus and later in Deuteronomy; the other words being torot, “instructions” or “teachings,” mishpatim, “rules,” and mitzvot, “commandments.” So I’m going to talk about keeping “laws,” the topic of Behukkotai, today.

With the final chapters in Leviticus, we come to the end of the Holiness Code with its description of the laws of the Jubilee and redemption, and then the subject matter of the text changes into what can only be called “when bad things happen to bad people” (with apologies to Harold S. Kushner). While observant behavior is to be rewarded, transgression and non-observance is to be punished greatly. In detailing the possible rewards and punishments, this section, chapter 26, can be seen as an appropriate conclusion to the book of Leviticus. But this chapter is followed by a very anticlimactic chapter 27, which discusses the value of people and property dedicated to God. Why spoil the effect of a tidy summarizing chapter?

First, let’s look at how the Tokhecha (“admonitions”) of chapter 26 function to summarize Leviticus. The book starts with the laws pertaining to the mishkan and priesthood; chapters 1–16 covers topics that pertain to the priests, such as sacrifice, ritual impurity, and purification. Then, in chapters 17–25, the topics change to cover a wide range of laws on marriage, sexual purity, social and interpersonal relationships—laws to ensure that the Israelites would become a holy nation. This is the part, chapters 17–26, that is known as the “Holiness Code.”

Notice how these ideas are covered in chapter 26. If the Israelites were good and obeyed the laws,

…the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. (26:4)
I will establish My abode (mishkan) in your midst. (26:11)

If, however, the commandments were ignored and violated,

Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (26:20)
I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries (mikdash) desolate. (26:31)

The “blessings” portion points to the Presence of God dwelling in the mishkan, while violating the commandments would result in the mikdash, the Temple (or sanctuary) and the focus of worship of the people, becoming abandoned.

And the final words of the chapter do have the effect of summarizing all of the foregoing:

These are the laws (chukim), rules (mishpatim), and instructions (torot) that the Lord established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people. (26:46)

But it’s unclear what laws, rules, and instructions are meant to be summarized. The Holiness Code? All of Leviticus? Leviticus plus Exodus? The classical commentators all had their opinions on this. Abravanel felt that this summary only applied to this particular chapter, while at the opposite extreme, Rashi claimed that this summary pertains not only to the entire written law, but to the oral law as well, quoting a midrash that supposes that what is being referred to here is torah shehbichtav u’b’al peh, “the written law and the oral law.” This is a difficult argument to sustain, however, since according to p’shat (literal meaning), the word ayleh, “these,” refers to the past and not the future.

Both Ramban and Ibn Ezra have opinions lying between these extremes, believing that what’s being summarized includes parts of Exodus, but for different reasons. Ibn Ezra maintains that the use of the term sefer ha’brit (found in Ex. 24:7) refers to parashat Behukkotai (which is itself quite an odd conclusion), while Ramban attempts to show that parashat Behukkotai was actually transmitted along with the second set of tablets (Ex. 24:1–38), which is an even odder idea.

Perhaps a close look at the area of the “break” in Leviticus between the two sections posited above will help a modern reader decide what’s being summarized.

My rules (mishpatim) alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws (chukim)… You shall keep My laws (chukim) and My rules (mishpatim), by the pursuit of which man shall live… (18:4–5)

From this we could assume that the rules and laws being summarized begin at chapter 18 (or even 17), and the term “instructions,” in the form zot torot, “these instructions,” occurs widely in the first seventeen chapters, especially in the sections pertaining to sacrifices. See, in particular, parashot Tzav, Tazria, and Metzora. Thus the instructions being summarized could be said to be those from the first seventeen chapters.

Now that the entire book has been summarized, why is chapter 27 appended? I have seen two explanations for this placement: one simplistic, another thoughtful. The simplistic explanation is that the Redactor—the editor who assembled the Torah—did not want the book to end on the “sour” note of curses and imprecations, and thus placed this inoffensive chapter here to close the book. I find this explanation unsatisfying. The other explanation considers the content of this chapter in comparison to that of parashat Vayikra, at the beginning of the book.

Vayikra opens with a description of a person who offers a voluntary gift and ends with a description of obligatory offerings, the sacrifices for the mishkan. In a similar fashion, chapter 27 begins with a voluntary offering of the “value” of a person or that of property and then proceeds to a description of the obligatory money tithe and first-born offering for the maintenance of the mikdash. These two sections, then, seem to stand as “bookends” for the book of Leviticus, giving it its structure as a book of instruction for the practice of being holy.

This is an example of the kind of literary structure that seems to have delighted the authors of all of our biblical works. It’s also fun to theorize why our holy books were written as they were, and the end of Leviticus is another fine example of how our commentators tried to resolve a puzzle.

May 2012

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