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Parashat Bechukotai - Quick Summary

Weekly Torah Reading

Parashat Bechukotai ("In My Statutes")

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Brit Chadashah


Leviticus 26:3-27:34

Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Matt. 21:33-46

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Torah Reading Snapshot:

Last week's Torah portion (parashat Behar) ended with the following statement:

Lev 26:2

You shall guard my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.

Parashat Bechukotai (בְּחֻקּתַי) begins with the promise that if we will walk in the LORD's statutes (chukkot) and commandments (mitzvot) and perform them, then we will enjoy material blessings and dwell securely in the promised land. Moreover the LORD Himself will make His dwelling with us and will walk among us as our God. We shall then truly be am segulah (עַם סְגֻלָּה) - a treasured people among all the nations of the earth.

The parashah begins:

Leviticus 26:3 (BHS)

If you walk in my statutes (chukkot) and guard my commandments (mitzvot)
and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land
shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.
(Lev 26:3-2)

Types of Mitzvot

The Torah is filled with various imperatives of one kind or another. The term mitzvot is a general term used to refer to any commandment given by God. Mitzvot can be further divided into the subcategories of chukkim u'mishpatim (חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים) (Deut. 4:5):

  • Chukkim (חֻקִּים) are statutes given without a reason (i.e., fiats or divine decrees). As such they are sometimes called "supra-rational" decrees. The classic example is the chok (sing.) regarding the Red Heifer, which, legend has it, defied even the wisdom of King Solomon. Other examples include dietary law or the laws concerning family purity. These laws can seem irrational to human reason.

    Zot chukat haTorah (זאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה) - "this is the Torah's decree...." which we therefore accept as a commandment that transcends our abilities to rationally fathom.  That is, when asked why we would do what is here commanded, we can only appeal to the fact that the LORD has commanded it - and that settles the issue.
  • Mishpatim (מִשְׁפָּטִים) are laws given for a clearly specified reason (i.e., logical laws). An example would be the commandment to give charity or the prohibitions against theft and murder. These mitzvot are inherently rational and appeal to the need for ethical unity (civil and moral life) within the community.
  • Note: eidot (עֵדוֹת) are testimonials (from the root 'ed, "witness") that commemorate or represent something -- e.g., the commandments to observe Shabbat and the holidays, to put on tefillin, wear tzitzit, eat matzah on Passover, blow a shofar, etc.  Since they commemorate or symbolically represent something, the eidot occupy a sort of middle ground between the rationally understandable mishpatim and the supra-rational chukkim.

The Call to Obey

This parashah, the last of the book of Leviticus, begins with the LORD's desire to have all Jews study the Torah and keep the commandments (mitzvot): "If you walk in my mitzvot and guard my chukkot and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit" (Lev. 26:3-4).

Indeed, the sages maintain that the entire world is dependent on the study of Torah (תַּלְמוּד תּוֹרָה) and the love of Torah for its own sake (i.e., Torah lishmah: תּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ).

    R. Meir says: Whoever engages in Torah 'for its own sake' (תּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ) earns many things; furthermore, he is deserving of the whole world. He is called friend, beloved, and intimate of God, lover of humanity; it clothes him in humility and reverences, rendering him fit to become righteous, saintly, upright, and faithful; it keeps him far from sin and brings him near to virtue, and from him men take counsel and sound knowledge, understanding, and fortitude, for it is written, 'Counsel is mine and sound knowledge, I am understanding, I am formidable.' And it gives him kingship, dominion, and discernment; to him are revealed the secrets of the Torah, and he is becomes like a never-failing fountain, a river that never ceases to flow; he becomes modest, longsuffering, and forgiving of insult; and it magnifies him and exalts him above all things.  (Pirkei Avot 6:1)

What Rabbi Akiva learned from a rock

As a young man, Akivah did not know a word of Torah but worked as a shepherd for a rich man in Jerusalem.  One day, while shepherding the flocks, he saw a hollowed-out rock resting under a waterfall and wondered how such a hard substance had been transformed. When he was told that the flowing water had made the drastic change in the rock, he reasoned: "If a rock, though extremely hard, can be hollowed out by water, how much more so should it be possible for Torah, which is compared to water, change my heart! I will begin to study it, and try to become a Torah scholar." Later Akivah became one of the greatest Torah sages of Israel who is still profoundly respected to this day.

The Promise of Blessings from Torah Study

The promise of "rains in their season" is symbolic of overall prosperity and joy.  Rain causes the air and drinking water to be pure, crops to be bountiful, and the lifestyle of everyone to be better. If we take the time to study the Torah and harvest from it knowledge of the ways of the LORD, God will reward us with material blessings, represented by a bountiful harvest from the land (middah keneged middah - "like for like").

Moreover, if we make the study and practice of Torah our highest priority, the LORD promised venatati shalom ba'aretz ("I will give peace in the land").  The land itself will dwell securely from our enemies, but if any should arise, we shall enjoy decided victory over them. Indeed one of us shall chase a hundred adversaries!

We shall also be blessed with large families and no one shall worry about how to provide for their children, for the LORD will prosper us and cause our barns to overflow -- all because we take the time to put the LORD and His word first in our lives.

The greatest blessing of all, however, is that the LORD promised to make His holy Presence dwell among us, and we would be God's very own treasured people:

I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you.
And I will walk among you and will be your God,
and you shall be my people. (Lev. 26:11-12)

The Promise of Curses from Rejecting Torah

On the other hand, if we disobey the LORD and do not study and perform the commandments (mitzvot), and if we spurn his ordinances (chukkim) and abhor his statutes (mishpatim), then we will be considered covenant-breakers, and we will experience all manner of distress and tribulation in our lives (Lev. 26:14-16).

We will experience panic attacks, diseases, heartache, and all manner of tsuris (vexation, trouble). Our enemies will eat our increase and those who hate us will rule over us. We shall flee at the rustle of a leaf, and our lives will be full of terror and misery -- all because we did not take the time to put the LORD and His word first in our lives. 

If we refuse to do teshuvah and return to the LORD, the worst punishment of all would befall us: exile from the land and from the Presence of the LORD Himself.  "Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies' land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths" (Lev 26:34).

Nonetheless, despite our disobedience, God's mercy toward us would never fully depart, for "if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to 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 with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land" (Lev 26:41-3).

The parashah ends with a discussion of laws pertaining to vows (nederim) that a person makes to contribute towards the upkeep of the sanctuary. These include dedications of persons, animals, houses, and lands. Yasher Koach and Chazak! (said upon completing a book of the Torah).

How do we fall away from the LORD?

It happens incrementally, in subtle stages. The evil one does not come to us one day and say, "Stop studying the Scriptures," since he knows we would immediately reject this as an evil suggestion.  No, instead he comes and tells us that we don't need to study so much. After all, the LORD loves us and has taken care of our sin problem by His grace, so we can take it easy, right?  "You can't get right with God by good deeds," he hisses, "so why not leave the study and learning of things like Torah to the professionals! After all, isn't that what (ahem) the clergy are paid for?"

After awhile, we study less and less, until finally we abandon the serious study of the Scriptures altogether (though we might still read a daily devotional on occasion). We don't think this should worry us, however, since we still attend services and "try to be a good person" by avoiding the bigger sins.

This way of living leads finally to outright apostasy, however, since without the study of Scripture as our highest priority, we will soon forget the call of the LORD in our lives.  The little sins soon don't bother us so much; and we find ourselves compromising here and there, with a divided heart on matters that used to cause us to wince...  We begin to forget that we are always walking upon holy ground before the Presence of the LORD, and our lives will become more and more profane and out of touch with the fear of God. Attending services themselves soon becomes optional, though we are sure to attend the bigger holidays, at least for the sake of appearances. Then the bigger sins come, and with them come trouble, vexation, shame, desperation, and a sense of "exile" from the LORD.

Our children will see this.  So will our friends.  Our testimony and witness will be compromised. Soon our children will think that the study of Scripture and the obedience to the Word of God are optional "lifestyle choices," and they will slide further away into a profane and alienated lifestyle of their own.

Should Christians Study Torah?

Often Christians think that the "Old Testament" is virtually irrelevant today, since the doctrines of the Church are made explicit in the New Testament writings. However, this is a serious mistake, as the following facts will demonstrate:

  1. Yeshua (Jesus) and all his disciples were Torah-observant Jews. The Scriptures which they studied, loved, and quoted were the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (i.e., the Jewish Tanakh).  Indeed, Yeshua quoted from the book of Deuteronomy (from the Torah) more than any other book in the Scriptures. As a child, Yeshua would have studied the Torah and memorized it with other Jewish children. He would also have been familiar with the teaching of the earlier Jewish sages of Israel.

    When asked what was the greatest commandment of the LORD, Yeshua quoted the ve'ahavta portion of the Shema: ve'ahavta et Adonai eloheykha be'khol-levavkha, u'vekhol nafshekha, u'vekhol me'odekha, "And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deut. 6:5), and then He added the commandment, v'ahavta l're'akha kamokha - ani Adonai , "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). Both of these commandments come directly from the Torah.

    Indeed, Yeshua said that He did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17-19). He later told a prospective follower of His, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:17). When He was further asked which ones, Yeshua replied by citing the Ten Commandments and appealed to the man to follow Him (Matt. 19:18-21).
  2. Yeshua said that the Jewish Scriptures plainly testify of Him (John 5:39). As His followers, we should understand what this means and how they indeed bear witness of Him as the King of the Jews (Matt 2:2; 27:11). In addition, by studying Torah, we can more fully appreciate the glory and grace as revealed in the Person and Work of our beloved Mashiach. For example, we can more fully savor the role of the sacrificial system and how Yeshua fulfilled all of God's holy requirements on our behalf as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) of the new covenant.
  3. When two disciples were on their way to the town of Emmaus discussing the implications of the crucifixion of Yeshua three days earlier, who but the Master Himself appeared alongside of them and taught them from the Jewish Scriptures? "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24: 13-36). Again, as His followers, we should likewise be able to recount how Yeshua is revealed in the Jewish Scriptures.
  4. The "Church" was born on a Jewish holiday of Shauvot (Pentecost) among the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Peter's sermon during that festival (Acts 2:1-41) was entirely Jewish, copiously quoting from the prophets and David, which would have meant little to any Gentiles in earshot (if there were any).  It is likely, therefore, that the 3,000 people who were saved that day would have been all Jewish. The earliest members of the new church met regularly in the Temple, where Gentiles were explicitly excluded (Acts 2:46). Note that the apostles Peter and John are recorded to have gone to the Temple for prayer during the time of the minchah (afternoon) sacrifices (Acts 3:1), and their ministry continued exclusively among the Jewish people, "among whom were thousands who believed and were zealous for the Torah" (Acts 21:20). Even after they were imprisoned but miraculously escaped, an angel told them to "Go, stand and speak in the Temple to the people all the words of this life" (Acts 5:20).
  5. Later, when the Jerusalem Council wrote their letter to the Gentiles regarding their relationship to the Torah, they advised them to at first abstain from those things that would make them abhorrent to the Jews, with the assumption that they would later go on to study the Torah of Moses and the other Jewish Scriptures (Acts 15:19-21).
  6. The Apostle Paul was raised a Torah observant Jew who studied under Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3)- the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel. Rabbi Sha'ul (as he would have been called) was well-established in the Jewish leadership of his day, and even had a relationship with the Sanhedrin and High Priest of Israel (Acts 9:1-2). But even after his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-21), he still identified himself a Jew. In Acts 23:6 he confessed, "I am (not "was") a Pharisee." He even declared that concerning the observance of the Torah he was "blameless," which indicates that he observed a Jewish lifestyle to his dying day (Phil. 3:6). Paul testified he kept the Torah all his life (Acts 25:7-8, see also Acts 28:17).

    Paul took the Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18), lived "in observance of the Torah" (Acts 21:23-24), and even offered sacrifices in the Jewish Temple (Acts 21:26). Notice that Paul not only paid for his own sacrifices in order to be released from his Nazarite vow, but also paid for the sacrifices for four other Jewish believers! Notice also that this was performed at the explicit request of James, the head of the Jerusalem Church (and half-brother of Yeshua).

    Paul regularly attended synagogue. "He came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures" (Acts 17:1-2).

    When Paul wrote to the Gentile churches, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17), he was of course referring to the Jewish Scriptures, since the New Testament had not yet been compiled for the church.

    Indeed, in order to understand Paul's writings, we need to remember his training as a Rabbi when he quotes the Scriptures in his writings. For example, when he wrote, "And all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4), he was quoting from a story later written in the Talmud (i.e., that from the time that Moses struck the rock at Horeb and brought forth water until the death of Miriam (Ex. 20:1), this water-giving rock "followed the children of Israel through the desert and provided water for them each day" (Taanit, 9a and Bava Metizia, 86b).
  7. Many Christian denominations profess to believe in the authority of both the "Old Testament" and the New Testament Scriptures while functionally relegating the study of the Torah to the dustheap of history. If the Jewish Scriptures are taken seriously at all, these denominational traditions attempt to explain away their clear reading (for example, the covenantal promises made to ethnic Israel) and arrogate the intent of the text as being applicable solely to the Church.

    This is both shortsighted and inconsistent, since it is impossible to understand the New Testament writings (including the very Church itself) while ignoring the cultural and theological context of which it is a part. Moreover, it must be remembered that the Greek text of the New Testament derives its authority and veracity from the Jewish Scriptures, and not the other way around. Too many Christian theologians go at this backwards, reading the New Testament (and particularly certain ideas ascribed to the Apostle Paul) as the interpretative filter for the study of the Hebrew text.  Theologians of the Western traditions must consciously remember the dictum, "a text without a context is a pretext" and repent of their heresies of replacement theology and implicit anti-Semitism (for more on this, click here).

So yes, for these (and many other) reasons, it is important, even vital, for Christians to study the Torah as part of the whole counsel of God (2 Tim. 2:15).

Haftarah Reading Snapshot:

In the Haftarah for Bechukotai, we see the prophet Jeremiah trying desperately to appeal to the Jewish people before the coming judgment and destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.  Jeremiah cites Israel's idol worship, neglect of the shemittah commandment (Sabbatical year), and the general loss of trust in the LORD.

Jeremiah contrasts the future behavior of the nations in the Millennial Kingdom with the behavior of the Jewish people. "To You the nations will come from the distant parts of the earth" and confess the worthlessness of their fathers' gods. But the Jews refuse to give up their idolatry, even in the face of the teshuvah (repentance) of the nations!

Another reason for the coming judgment is that the Jewish people abandoned the commandment of shemittah (the refraining of the Jewish farmer from working his land during the seventh year). In fact, the 70 years of Babylonian captivity were punishment meted out for the 70 sabbatical years Israel failed to observe from the time they entered the land to the destruction of the first Temple (i.e., 490 years).

Jeremiah then sets up the contrast between trusting in man and trusting in the LORD. "Thus saith the LORD; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD" (Jer. 17:5). By failing to trust in the LORD's provision during the sabbatical year, the Jews demonstrate that their heart departed from the LORD. They shall be parched and uninhabited in their places. On the other hand, the only acceptable response light of God's inevitable judgment is heartfelt repentance:

Jer 17:7

Blessed is he who trusts in the LORD, Whose trust is the LORD alone.

The one trusting in the LORD is like "a tree transplanted by water that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit" (Jer. 17:8; Psalm 1:3).

Nonetheless, since heart is deceitful "above everything else" and "incurably bad" (אָנוּשׁ), Jeremiah wonders what can be done to change the people's direction. God answers by saying that He searches the heart and tests the mind, "to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds" (Jer. 17:10). Those who attempt to secure wealth by unjust means will be proven to be a fool (נָבָל). Jeremiah responds by exclaiming, "A glorious throne set on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary. O LORD, the hope of Israel (מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל), all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water" (Jer. 17:12-13). The haftarah ends with an appeal for healing and salvation:

רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא
הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתִי אָתָּה

re·fa·ei·ni  Adonai  ve·ei·ra·fei
ho·shi·ei·ni  ve·iv·va·shei·ah,  ki  te·hil·la·ti  at·tah

"Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise."
(Jer. 17:14)

Chagall - Peace Window (detail)

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Brit Chadashah Snapshot:

The reading from Matthew's gospel concerns the "parable of the tenants."

Grape Cluster

A certain "master of a house" planted a vineyard, leased it to tenants, and then left for another country. When the season for harvest drew near, the master sent his servants to the tenants to receive payment, but the tenants beat one, killed another, and stoned another. The master then sent more servants, who were treated likewise by the tenants. Finally, the Master sent his own son to them, saying, "They will respect my son." But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him."

Yeshua then asks his listeners (the chief priests and Pharisees), "When the Master of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" To which they answered, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." Yeshua then reminded them that His rejection by the Jewish leaders was in fact prophesied (Psalm 118:22), and that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to a people producing its fruits.

In other words, the Master of the House is the God of Israel, the tenants are the Jewish people, the servants of the Master are the prophets sent to the Jews, and the son of the Master is the Son of God, who was "thrown out of the vineyard and killed" by the tenants. The people producing the fruits of the Kingdom of God are those who honor the Son of God, Yeshua the Mashiach, who, though they be broken, shall not be crushed when the judgment at the end of the age arrives.

On the other hand, the parable can equally be understood as a sober warning for those who merely profess faith in the Messiah as well. Yeshua is likewise a master of a house who planted a vineyard and left for another country, and one day he will return to take account of those servants to whom he entrusted his vineyard... Those who are imposters in his service will ultimately be rejected from the Kingdom of God.


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