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Bechukotai - Thoughts on Tochachah

The Tochachah

Further thoughts on Parashat Bechukotai

by John J. Parsons

[ Note: The following is related to this week's Torah reading (Bechukotai).
Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

This week's Torah portion includes the first great "rebuke" (i.e., tochachah: תּוֹכָחָה) of the community of Israel given in the Scriptures (the second is found in Ki Tavo, i.e., Deut. 28:15-68). In this sober and ominous section, God promises the people great blessing if they would obey Him (Lev. 26:3-13), but He forewarns that exile, persecution and other progressively worse punishments would befall them if they would break faith with Him (Lev. 26:14-46). The sages note that divine censure would come if the people "forgot" about God or otherwise became careless in their observance of His laws. They point out that the refrain "if you walk contrary to me" (וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי) - which occurs several times during the rebuke - really means "if you walk carelessly (i.e., keri: קְרִי) with me." Rashi notes that the verb קָרָה means "to befall" or "to happen" and therefore suggests a sense of randomness (the related word mikreh [מִקְרֶה] means "coincidence"). If the people regarded the events of life as "random," then God would reciprocate by bringing senseless trouble into their lives...  For this reason the sages regard a careless attitude about God's will as the very first step to inevitable apostasy. In other words, regarding whatever happens in life as mere "coincidence" essentially denies God's Presence (hashgachah pratit), and this attitude will eventually call for God's corrective intervention. People may be "hot or cold" regarding their relationship with Him, but God will never give the option of affecting indifference toward Him... Indeed, God often brings hardship into our lives to regain our attention and cause us to return to Him.  As C.S. Lewis once said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

The portion begins, "If you walk in my statutes (i.e., bechukotai: בְּחֻקּתַי) and guard my commandments and you do them..." (Lev. 26:3), which led Rabbi Hanina to ask why the seemingly superfluous phrase, "and you do them" (וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אתָם) was included here. After all, if the people would walk in God's statutes and guard his commandments, wouldn't they necessarily be doing them? He then suggested that the vowels of the word otam ("them") should be vocalized as atem (אַתֶּם), "you," which would then change the sense of the phrase to become, "you shall make (עָשָׂה) yourselves" (i.e., into God's image). The logical corollary of this seems to imply that if you do not walk in God's statutes and guard his commandments, you disfigure the image of God within you...

Interestingly, God specifically cites the failure to observe the Sabbatical Year (shemittah), mentioned in last week's Torah portion, as part of the reason why His judgment would come (Lev. 26:34-35,43). The observance of the Sabbatical Year, of course, required complete faith that God was in control of all the "happenings" of nature. Like the Sabbath day, the Sabbatical year was designated to proclaim that God is the King of the universe. Those who disregarded this law therefore denied God's rule over nature, and thereby denied the existence of a spiritual law of "cause and effect" that operates in the physical world...

יִרְאַת יְהוָה רֵאשִׁית דָּעַת
חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר אֱוִילִים בָּזוּ

yir·at  Adonai  rei·shit  da·at,
chokh·mah  u·mu·sar  e·vi·lim  ba·zu


"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction."
(Prov. 1:7)


The litany of evils that would befall the Jewish people is not issued without hope, of course. God promised never to entirely forsake them even while they endured the "like for like" punishment of exile and tribulation: "But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking carelessly (קְרִי) with me, so that I walked carelessly (קְרִי) with them and brought them into the land of their enemies - if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant (וְזָכַרְתִּי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי) with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land" (Lev. 26:40-42). Notice that the names of the patriarchs are listed in reverse order, suggesting that the LORD would harken back all the way to His original covenant made with Abraham....

According to Jewish tradition, Ezra the Scribe (5th century BC) arranged the weekly readings so that this portion was always read couple weeks or so before the holiday of Shavuot. Apparently Ezra reasoned that since the judgment mentioned in this portion included the destruction of the Temple and exile from the land, he thought that publicly reading it before the holiday of Shavuot (which traditionally commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai) would instill a sense of teshuvah (repentance) among the people. Nonetheless, since this portion concerns rebuke and judgment, it is difficult to find volunteers to publicly read this portion during synagogue services, and the custom arose to have just one person read the entire rebuke (i.e., Lev. 26:10-46) as one long aliyah (as opposed to breaking it up for several people to read smaller parts). Ironically, it is also customary for the one making this aliyah to recite the passage in a lowered tone of voice....

The idea of divine rebuke (תּוֹכָחָה) is a sober reminder that "God is not mocked (μυκτηρίζω - lit., "to turn up the nose at"), and what a man sows, he also reaps" (Gal. 6:7; Psalm 39:11). Each of us is therefore responsible to live before God in holiness and to remind others to fear the LORD and His coming judgment. Despite the propaganda of this evil world, the Scriptures repeatedly state there are abiding consequences for the choices we make in our lives. "For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Messiah and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 5:6-7).

כֵּן־צְדָקָה לְחַיִּים וּמְרַדֵּף רָעָה לְמוֹתוֹ

 ken  tze·da·kah  le·chai·yim,  u·me·ra·def  ra·ah  le·mo·to

"True righteousness leads to life;
but the one who pursues evil goes to his own death."
(Prov. 11:19)


For those who can believe, God imparts a "new nature" that is received entirely by faith in Yeshua. This new nature makes us briah chadashah (בְּרִיאָה חֲדָשָׁה), "a new creation," with a heart and will that is supernaturally enabled by God's power (not by our feeble intentions) to please the Father...  Because of Yeshua, all things are made new (2 Cor. 5:17). The process of sanctification - just as the process of justification - is a gift from God to those who are trusting in Him, and both are inextricably connected.

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