There's No Place Like Home
Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )
Unfortunately, sometimes relationships deteriorate, and when they do, each side has thoughts about the wisdom of continuing, of staying together. Is the heartache worth it, the emotional cost justifiable?
What if the relationship in question is between God and His Chosen People? What happens when that relationship deteriorates? If they have a "trial separation," what would it take for both sides to give the relationship a second chance?
Looking back at the episodes and events recorded in the Torah from the Exodus to this point, we realize that there were many "cracks in the ice;" the love story that had begun on such a promising note was not really on solid ground. God, of course was fully aware, from the outset, that the "honeymoon" would eventually come to an end: The redemption from Egypt, which is likened to a knight in shining armor swooping in to rescue a damsel in distress,(1) would be eclipsed by duplicity and faithlessness on the part of the Jewish People.
Parashat B'hukotai spells out the details of estrangement: The bond, the covenant sealed at Sinai, is broken. As a result, we become homeless and alone. The Land of Israel is no longer ours, and we are cast into exile.
How can this broken relationship be repaired? What is needed to bring about reconciliation? How can we become worthy of the love and trust we violated? What can we do to deserve to come back home? The verse that describes the process of reconciliation is somewhat enigmatic:
I will remember My covenant with Yaakov as well as My covenant with Yitzchak and My covenant with Avraham and I will remember the Land. (Vayikra 26:42)
It strikes us that this verse is written in inverse order; the normal sequence begins with Avraham and ends with Yaakov. Additionally, the verse speaks of God "remembering" and bringing us back to the Land. This seems to contradict the very foundations of our belief in God who exists beyond the constraints of time and space: God does not "forget", nor does he need to be reminded. We repeat this very basic tenet of faith over and over in the liturgy of the High Holy Days: "For there is no forgetting in front of God's throne."
In fact, the impetus for reconciliation, what "causes" God to remember, as it were, is our own "remembering" - what Jewish mysticism calls "an awakening from below." Man stirs; the Jewish People remember where they should be and become acutely aware of what they have lost through their infidelity, and reach out to God from the exile. This awakening, this human gesture of remorse that seeks to rekindle lost intimacy, triggers God's response, the "awakening from above."
But what of the strange sequence of the verse? Why are the patriarchs "remembered" in inverse order?(2) It seems that this verse lays out the mechanics, the method, the specific steps that must be taken to restore the relationship, by presenting the three forefathers as representatives of three distinct modes of serving God: Yaakov represents Torah study and observance [he was a man of study who "dwelled in tents" (3) ]. Yitzchak represents avodah [ritual service, sacrifice and complete submission of the kind he displayed when he was placed upon the altar (4) ]. Avraham represents hesed, kindness.
The covenant that allows the Jewish People to live in peace and intimacy with God in the Land of Israel was forged on the basis of their acceptance of the Torah. For reconciliation to take place, they must recommit themselves to Torah. In order to renew the covenant, they must fulfill the original terms of the covenant. For this reason, Yaakov is mentioned before the other patriarchs.
What if this is too tall an order for us? What if a generation emerges that is estranged from Torah observance? Is reconciliation still possible? The verse does not end with the covenant of Yaakov; in His infinite mercy, God does not hold us to that standard. He does not demand that we live up to the terms of that covenant in order to rekindle our relationship with Him. He is willing to accept a rekindling of the covenant of Yitzchak: If we turn to him in prayer, if we are willing to submit our ego and wholeheartedly serve God, we may still merit reconciliation.
What if our generation is devoid of the basic consciousness of God expressed by Torah observance, Torah study, even of prayer? The verse in Parashat B'hukotai indicates that as long as we practice kindness, if we are scrupulous in our interpersonal relationships and comportment like Avraham, we will still be able to come home.
And what if even this decency and mutual responsibility is lost? Is reconciliation still possible? Is there any way to end our exile and estrangement? The conclusion of this verse holds out one last hope: "I will remember the Land." If a sincere and potent "remembering of the Land" arises from below - even if it is devoid of the other three components - reconciliation is still possible.
The implication is clear: There is no need for identical perspectives or total agreement on all issues in order to create, maintain, rekindle or repair a relationship; one passionately shared element is enough.
Recent history has seen hundreds of thousands of Jews return to the Land of Israel, in what can only be called a reawakening of the Jewish spirit. This alone is sufficient to stir the awakening above. Now, to solidify the relationship, we must move to the next stage in our covenantal history. Like Avraham, we must build our environment - beginning with our personal relationships, our households, our communities and our nation - on hesed. We must rediscover our voice, and pray to God in earnest, like Yitzchak. And we must find our way back to real Torah learning and observance - and completely live up to our side of the covenant.
Until we are able to collectively achieve these goals, though, it is nice to know that God is willing to welcome us home simply because we really want to come back home.
For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2015/05/audio-and-essays-parashiot-bhar.html
1. Yirmiyahu 2:2.
2. I heard this idea from Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, but he could not recall where he originally heard it.
3. Bereishit 25:27, understood by the rabbis to be the tents of Torah study.
4. Bereishit 22:9.