Bechukotai 2016 - 5776

Post date: Jun 3, 2016 4:50:58 PM

Parshat Bechukotai, June 3, 2016

Our Torah reading this week contains, in a single word, presented in a unique grammatical form, a commentary on the evolution of the relationship between God and humanity.

The parsha, Bechukotai, contains a lengthy list of rewards for following God’s laws and commandments, as well as an arguably lengthier list of punishments for failing to do so. God’s promises include an abundance of food, military victories, and large numbers of descendants. The threats cover these domains (lack of food, falling before enemies) and more – ranging from fevers and plagues to beasts that will eat crops, steal children, and destroy cattle.

At the very end of the section of promises for adhering to God’s commandments – the last promise God makes – is a strange statement. God says, “v’hit’halachti b’toch’chem, v’hayiti la’chem leilohim.” This can be roughly translated as, “I will walk amongst you and I will be for you, a God.” However, the construction v’hit’halachti is an odd one – it is a common root (hey-lamed-chaf, which, in general, means to go or to walk), placed in a binyan (grammatical structure) that is reflexive and reciprocal (binyan hit’pa’el). This binyan is used for actions that one does to oneself (e.g., to wash oneself), and actions that are done mutually – two people to each other at the same time (e.g., to marry). The root hey-lamed-chaf is often thought of as “to go” or “to walk,” thus leading to the translation of this root in this binyan as “to walk amongst.” However, that does not seem an entirely satisfactory explanation for the word. What does it mean to reciprocally or reflexively “go”?

Interestingly, this same root in the same binyan is used at another point in the Torah. In the fifth chapter of B’reishit (Genesis) is a genealogy, beginning with Adam and continuing to Seth. After many generations are named, including their ages and numbers of offspring, the Torah comes to Hanoch (Enoch). At the end of each generation’s patriarch in the genealogy, it states the age at which they died. However, for Hanoch, the Torah says, “and Hanoch’s days were three hundred sixty five years. v’yit’halech hanoch et ha’elohim – and Hanoch walked (himself) with God.” Just as in our parsha this week, it is unclear how we can understand Hanoch’s action. He “went” reflexively or reciprocally with God – what does this mean?

I think the answer lies in the verses that immediately follow both of our unusual words. Both occurrences of that grammatical form are followed by a reference to a Brit - a covenant or binding contract. In B’reishit, the genealogy ends with Noah, and with the first covenant in the Torah, the Brit Hakeshet - covenant of the rainbow – that God makes with Noah. It is one-sided. God simply promises never again to destroy the earth with a flood. The rainbow is an enduring reminder of that promise.

Contrast that to this week's chapter, Bechukotai, in which God goes on to remind the Israelites that if they break the brit Sinai – the covenant made at Mt. Sinai – then terror, hate, disease, famine, and slavery will ensue. The covenant God refers to in Bechukotai is two-sided – if the Israelites behave one way, good things happen. If they behave in the opposite way, terrible things will happen. However, in both places in the Torah, the same strange grammatical construction comes up.

What can we make of this? In both of these cases, the idea of reciprocity is critical. The binyan hit’pa’el suggests that actions are done mutually, at the same time, to one another. In both cases, a covenant is formed between two parties – either humankind and God, or the Israelite people and God. In both cases, these covenants must be reciprocal in order for them to be effective. By using words that suggest reciprocity, the Torah further emphasizes the importance of both parties participating in the brit (covenant).

Looking further at the two instances of the hey-lamed-chaf root in binyan hit’pa’el, we might notice that the first instance – the one-sided covenant where God promises to Noah – is one in which a human being (Hanoch) ‘walks’ with God. The second instance – the two-sided covenant where God is laying out the rewards and punishments of following the commandments – is one in which God states that God will ‘walk’ with human beings.

If we see the Torah as portraying an evolution of relationship between God and the Israelites, we can understand these two reminders of brit as marking two important stages in the relationship. The first stage involved God showing God’s might and power to humanity, resulting in the brit to never again do so. In this stage, God is distant and possibly wary of the human beings he has created. Thus, a human being comes to ‘walk’ with God.

In the second stage, human beings have existed, survived, and suffered on earth for many generations. They have formed deep, strong relationships with one another through their years of living together. They are now responsible and accountable for their actions. In this stage, it is God who must come to ‘walk’ with the people. In both cases, however, the idea of reciprocity remains crucial. In order to have a successful covenant, we must have a reciprocal relationship first.

I believe this is true for human beings as well – sometimes, we must be the ones to come and ‘walk’ with someone else if we seek to have a relationship with them. Other times, we are the distant ones, and can only be expected to allow someone else to come and ‘walk’ with us. In either case, though, reflexiveness and reciprocity – being personally invested in walking together, and doing our best to understand the life experiences of one another – is what allows us to continue our successful relationships.

Shabbat shalom,

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher