Behar-Bechukotai: Reward and Punishment

Towards the end of the book of Vayikra, Moshe delivers a prophetic warning. There are blessings to come from faithfulness to G-d’s mitzvoth, and dire consequences if the people are disloyal and disregard the mitzvoth.


Nechama Leibowitz quoted from Rambam, in explaining the emphasis on material rewards and punishments.  He taught that G-d would assist the children of Israel by making them comfortable, free of hunger, thirst, sickness, war, if they were carrying out the mitzvoth.  He taught that the material rewards were a means to perfect the study of Torah.  Conversely, if they transgressed, evil would overtake them, preventing them from carrying out the commandments. G-d would bring on the curses and remove the blessings, until they spent their days in terror and fear.


Nechama Leobowitz examined the phrasing of one of the curses in more detail. “I will bring the land into desolation”.  This was interpreted by Nachmanides as  meaning that the land will remain desolate and no other nation will be able to settle it. When Nachmanides came to the land and saw it desolate, he saw it was waiting the redemptive hand of its own people.


The next curse was “I will scatter you among the nations” which Rashi regarded as a message of  retribution and darkness. Rashi regarded another of the curses more optimistically. “I will bring them into the land of their enemies” ,  he interpreted as meaning that G-d would accompany the Jews into exile. Nechama Leibowitz wrote that the outward message was one of retribution and catastrophe but inwardly, overtones of comfort and consolation could be detected.   The curses end with a message of hope. “I will not reject them … or destroy them utterly, and break My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their G-d.  I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, who I brought out of Egypt …. That I might be their G-d; I am the Lord”.


Yeshayahu Lebowitz wrote that the Jews could not expect any special treatment in their own right, and the Jews were obliged to keep their side of the covenant in order that the covenant be brought into life in the present day. 

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