Parasha Behar-Behukotei

The section of Tokhehah, reproach, at the end of Leviticus from our double parshaBehar-Behukotei makes me wince as God threatens to act with the same spite towards the Israelites that the Israelites have shown to God. The punishment of exile from the Land is apparently a form of rehabilitative punishment until their sins can be transformed to favor. Only then will God be able to see beyond the sins of the current generation and remember the pleasing conduct of their ancestors. The restoration of the covenant is said in 26:42 to be in memory of Jacob, Isaac and Abraham and of the Land.

Maybe I am still cringing from the rebuke, but this verse comes out off kilter—it is loaded with peculiar elements. The patriarchs are listed in reverse order. Jacob’s name is written with an extra vov. Isaac is mentioned but not “remembered.” And, the Land itself is also listed as a reminder to God of the covenant. What is going on?

I love Rashi’s explanation for the extra vov in Jacob.  He says that there are five places that Jacob is written with the extra vov, and five places where Elijah is written without the vov. As it were, Jacob seized a handful of Elijah’s vovs and held them as sureties that Elijah would in fact come rescue Jacob’s descendants. I suppose Elijah is still missing his vovs, so we should sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” on Saturday nights.  Am I getting esoteric enough for you?

Regarding Isaac not being remembered, the Sifra (the foremost Midrash to Leviticus, circa 1860) tells us that his “dust” from the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac) is always before God’s eyes, as it says “On the Mountain of the Lord I will see”, and thus God never needs a reminder about Isaac. There are people in our lives whom we cherish so greatly, for whom we are so grateful, that we can never forget them. I am not sure if this would console Isaac, but it is nice to think along with the rabbis that God cherished him all the more for his trauma on Mount Moriah.

What about the reverse order of patriarchs? The Sifra says that “if the deeds of Abraham are not sufficient, then there are the deeds of Isaac, etc.” Rashi reverses that explanation, seeing the patriarchs as some sort of a multiple firewall mechanism. Jacob is the most minor character, so if his merit fails to suffice, there is always Isaac, and if he fails, then there is Abraham. Consider Rashi’s paraphrase; it makes more sense. On the other hand, the Sifra also says that Jacob is the only one of the patriarchs whose “bed is whole”, meaning that his progeny turned out admirably. The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Efraim, 1550-1619) sees the three patriarchs as being bank accounts that each started equal. Because Abraham’s stock of merit has been drawn against the longest, it is prudent to draw first from the more recent deposits of Jacob.  

The citation of the merit of the Land as a remembered obligation is remarkable. It seems to me that the Land is a prominent character in this entire section of the Torah, and it is impossible to imagine a full Israelite or Jewish life without a connection to it.  Remarkably, Rashi does not even mention “the Land” in his commentary.

This ancient Midrash Sifra Behukotei Chapter 2 finds it impossible to imagine that the matriarchs are not also part of the covenant and locates them hidden in the word “et”.  You, like me, will probably find this proof weak, but we must credit the ancient rabbis for recognizing the problem of the missing mothers. And using “et” to locate them is welcome since it is the alpha to omega word, aleph to tav, encompassing all the letters in between. “Et” indicates the definite object, and mothers give people distinct identity. It is almost like the hidden matriarchs are the brackets of all existence and that their elusiveness is occasion to search that much harder.

Next weekend when we celebrate Mother’s Day, I hope that each of us will be able to lift up and acknowledge aloud the merit of our matriarchs. For those of us whose mothers are no longer physically present, it is a time to remember their precious love and to share that love with those around us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham