Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘divine retribution

This is one of the most difficult readings in the Torah and it bears a resemblance to an equally difficult passage in Deuteronomy, which likewise lists the punishments due to the people of Israel, if they reject God and His commandments and follow the gods of the neighbouring peoples. They are known by the Hebrew word Tochechot, which means ‘warnings.’ The preceding verses are a series of blessings which God will bestow if the people keep His commandments, so the passage which we are going to read is a counterbalance – the stick and not the carrot.

The blessings, like the punishments, are collective and it is the people, rather than individuals, who are spoken of as being faithful to God or turning away from Him. In fact, all the warnings are in the second person plural, being addressed to all Israel.

The bottom line is God’s warning that He will punish the people with famine to the extent that they will have recourse to cannibalism. The scriptural author must have had experience of famine, indirect if not direct, as he or she was aware that cannibalism is sometimes a consequence of famine.

Can this be our conception of God? Or is it recognizable as human interpretation of catastrophe, where disaster is seen as the retribution of God and the wages of sin?

Bechukkotai threatens other punishments: exile, subjugation by enemies, sickness, weakness and terror. We find in this Torah reading the saying ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall pursue [those left among you] and they shall flee as in flight from the sword and fall, with none pursuing.’

Then the tone changes. So deep is the abyss that is threatened, that up is now the only possible direction. The sins of Israel will be expiated by confession and suffering, and God will remember his covenant with the Patriarchs. The patriarchs are named here as Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, reversing the usual order. The first named, Jacob, stands for Israel more so than Abraham or Isaac, from whom other nations besides Israel are descended.

This passage suits the temperament of at least two kinds of reader. There are those who make a superstitious connection between catastrophe and retribution. Then there are the critics of bible and particularly Tanakh, who denounce the cruelty of what they often call ‘the God of the Old Testament.’

How can we say those interpretations are unreasonable, given the text, in black and white, on our sefer Torah?

I am not able to answer this, but I can see that the first view, of extreme punishment being deserved, tends to be favourable to cruelty; the second view is certainly critical of cruelty but it is perhaps a facile way of reading of scripture.

There is in today’s Torah portion a binary division: reward and punishment, good and evil, strength and weakness, remembering and forgetting.

It reflects a noticeably binary or dual aspect to the stories of Genesis, with its pairs of brothers from Cain and Abel onwards and the adversarial pairing of women: Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, and the less famous Adah and Zillah, before the flood. We see it too in the story of the raven and the dove sent out by Noah. In the sacrificial system of Leviticus, we find pairs of birds and pairs of goats; one is chosen for sacrifice, the other discarded and sent away, not unlike Cain and Ishmael, the discarded partners of Abel and Isaac who, each in his own way, is associated with acceptable sacrifice. Here, in Bechukkotai, we have blessings and curses in close juxtaposition.

My view is that our reading of the Torah should be informed by a perception of grey areas and in-between realities. Enlightened interpretation of scriptural texts has been a characteristic of the modern age, if you regard the modern age as beginning around the time of the seventeenth century, when the Jewish philosopher Spinoza got into trouble for his non-literal interpretation of the bible.

There is great complexity in our politics, our ethics, our wars, our relationship with God and, above all, our perception of cause and effect. The Torah is indeed our inheritance and I think it’s desirable that we read all of it, but we should read it carefully. The tradition is to read these reproofs in an undertone and in orthodox tradition, as a single aliyah. Adam Frankenberg, a rabbinical student at LBC, writes:

All the curses are read within one aliyah and verses which are not curses are read before and after them, which not only means that reading them is completed as quickly as possible but also that the curses themselves are not blessed.

It seems to me that, if we are going to read this passage, that is the way to read it.

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