Coincidence or the Hand of God?
Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34 )
The Book of Leviticus ends with a somber warning. God admonishes us to beware of the terrible fate that will befall us if we abandon His covenant. One word that stands out in the parashah is repeated again and again: "keri (casualness)," an attitude that implies lack of causality, coincidence. The Torah warns us that our undoing will come about as a result of keri, a feeling that everything that befalls us is happenstance - merely an accident of fate.
Maimonides taught that when suffering is visited upon us, we are commanded to cry out and awaken our people by sounding the shofar. Everyone must be alerted to examine his or her life and commit to greater adherence to Torah and mitzvos. Most significantly, Maimonides warned that to regard tragedies as natural happenings - the way the world does - is to be guilty of cruelty.
At first glance, it is difficult to understand why Maimonides chose the term "cruelty" to describe those who view tribulations as "natural occurrences," We may regard such people as being guilty of apathy, obtuseness, or blindness, but why cruelty?
The answer is simple. If we regard our pain and suffering as mere coincidences, we will feel no motivation to examine our lives, abandon our old ways, and change. So yes, such an attitude is cruel, for it invites additional misfortune upon ourselves and others.
Thus, when we obstinately refuse to see Divine Providence in our daily lives, when we believe that things happen simply because they "happen to happen," we allow the suffering to continue unabated and we create a wall between ourselves and our Heavenly Father. So yes, it's cruelty to relegate God's wake-up call to "keri" - mere coincidence.
At the end of the parashah, after enumerating all the calamities that will befall us, God makes a promise: "And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember ...." This declaration is an eternal guarantee that no matter what, we, the Jewish people, will be redeemed in the merit of our Patriarchs.
There is one aspect of this covenant, however, that is rather puzzling. Why the reverse order? Why commence with Jacob? Why not commence with Abraham?
At the opening of the parashah, when we are warned about the terrible curses that will befall us if we abandon the covenant, we are also told how it could have happened that we, the People of the Book, the nation who stood at Sinai and heard the voice of God, could have forgotten our Divine calling. Those curses are given in seven ascending steps of severity, corresponding to the people's continuing failure to take the punishments to heart and learn from them to repent.
To be sure, no Jew ever woke up one morning and suddenly decided, "I will forsake my Jewish faith." It is a slow, seven-step process and our parashah delineates it. The first step is the cessation of Torah study. The second is laxness in Torah observance, the third is mockery of those who do observe the commandments he abandoned, etc. One erosion leads to another until it culminates in the seventh and the covenant is forsaken. It is as a consequence of this abandonment that the "curses" befall us.
How do we redeem ourselves?
The answer is simple: Reverse the process, as Hashem reversed the names of the Patriarchs; reclaim that first step - Torah study - and the rest will follow.
There are three pillars upon which our faith stands: Torah, Avodah (service, sacrifice), and Gemilas Chassadim. Each of our Patriarchs personified one of these pillars. Abraham represents loving-kindness; Isaac, service and sacrifice; and Jacob, Torah. And because the tragic process of Jewish defection commences with the abandonment of Torah, the revitalization of Jewish life must commence with the re-acceptance of Torah as symbolized by Jacob. And so it is that God's promise in this instance is given by mentioning the names of the Patriarchs in reverse order.
The Way to Study Torah
The opening verse of this parashah commences with "In My statutes you shall walk ...." The use of the word "walk" is rather odd. It would seem to be more appropriate to use the verb observe or study. But the Torah is teaching is how to safeguard our spiritual lives and preserve our Yiddishe neshamos.
Walking connotes constant movement, teaching us that we never graduate from Torah study; as long as we are alive, we must continue to delve into its deep secrets. Our Sages further explain that this "walking" implies "ameilus - toiling in Torah," putting heart and soul into our study, for it is only when we study and teach with passion, with every fiber of our beings, that we will reap the full benefits of this toil.
Walking also implies that we Jews are charged with the imperative of following the well-trodden path of our ancestors, for it is only by following their path that we can be true to our calling, our mission.
- Num. 26:27 et al.
- Ibid. 26:42.