parshat bechukotai, leviticus 26
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on May 26th. This week we see the flip side of not owning our land. We are exposed to exile and alienation, both physical and emotional. But mostly, we are struck by the almost too rich vocabulary and overly haunting imagery the Torah exhibits for a people without a land.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/408510
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Last week the Torah taught us that only God owns the land and we felt the liberation of not being tied to the land. This week we see the flip side of not owning our land. We are exposed to exile and alienation, both physical and emotional in very visceral terms. So pick up you walking stick and pack you bags as we become a driven leaf.
So, welcome everybody to Madlik. And you know, every week I kind of feel. And I don’t know if it’s like that for everybody who reads the Parsha every week, as if it’s anew. But you know, every Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday, I look at the next parsha. And I’m always surprised by what I find. But it turns out that this parsha is an extension of last parsha, where we talked about the sabbatical year. And you’re going to see that in a few minutes. And it really is the flip side of what we discussed last week. So, if you’re tuning in to our podcast for the first time, and you didn’t listen to last week, after you listen to this one, I suggest you go back and listen to This is MY land. But in any case, we are in parshat Bechukotai . And it’s in Leviticus 26 and it starts out אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ if you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments, and it goes on verse after verse, how good things are gonna be if you listen to God’s commandments, but then we get to verse 13. And it says, I God am your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, and of course, the words that it uses is, וְאִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֣י תִּמְאָ֔סוּ וְאִ֥ם אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֖י תִּגְעַ֣ל נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם if you don’t listen to Bechukotai and it says and if you break my confidence, then it starts talking about what will happen to you. And in very poetic and haunting ways. It says starting with verse 17, I will set my face against you, you shall be routed by your enemies, your foes shall dominate you, you shall flee, though none pursues. And if for all that you do not obey me, I will go to discipline you seven-fold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory, I will make your skies like iron, and your earth like copper, so that your strength is shall be spent to no purpose, your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. If you remain hostile towards me and refuse to obey me, I will go on smiting you seven-fold for your sins. And Rabbi last week you accentuated, you sensitized as to this seven-fold-ness of the sabbatical cycle, and boy, oh boy, in this week’s parsha in verse 20, it says, I too will remain hostile to you, I in turn will smite you seven-fold for your sins. And then it goes on when I break your staff of bread. ten women shall bake your bread and single oven, they shall dole out your bread by weight, and though you eat you shall not be satisfied וַאֲכַלְתֶּ֖ם וְלֹ֥א תִשְׂבָּֽעוּ the opposite of what we do when we do birchat HaMazon where we eat and we are satisfied. And then in 28 It says seven-fold for your sins. And it says I will lay your cities in ruin make your sanctuarys desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors exactly what we talk about in the temple when the sacrifices are given and God savor us the pleasant odors here I will not savor your pleasant odors. And then in verse 33, and you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you, your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin, then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate, and you are in the land of your enemies, then sell the land rest and make up for it’s seven years. So clearly, the Torah is not finished with the Sabbath cycle, the Shemita years when the land lies fallow throughout the time that it is desolute, it shall observe the rest, that it did not observe in your Sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. As for those of you who survive, who will count faithfulness into their hearts, in the land of their enemies, the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall through none pursues, this is an ongoing theme, that they will be afraid of something that is even not there, with no one pursuing they shall stumble over one another, as before the sword, you shall not be able to stand your ground before your enemies, but shall perish among the nations and the land of your enemies shall consume you. And luckily, towards the end, in verse 42, it says, Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, I will remember my covenant with Isaac, also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. But oh, boy, is this the flip side of not owning the land? And is this a continuation of this concept of seven, but this concept of the sabbatical year, and I have to say, we read the tour every year, and it should be something new to us. But the continuation of the motif from last week was profound to me. What about you, Rabbi?
Adam Mintz 07:24
I think it’s great. I mean, well, there are a few things. Number one, of course, is that the number seven is important, right? That’s true, just generally, the number seven, so everything is seven-fold. But there’s no question. You know, last week’s Torah reading was about the fact that if you observe the sevens, everything will be fine. So that when things unravel, they unravel in the same way, or the opposite way of what of the way it worked out. So if it worked out in sevens, it’s going to unravel in, right. And that’s really what you read, you said, you know, and it’ll get the rest that it didn’t get, if you don’t observe the sevens, it’ll unravel, it’ll, it’ll take advantage of that. And it will get the rest of the will lay fallow, even when it’s not supposed to lay fallow. So it’s clearly a play on last week’s Torah reading.
Geoffrey Stern 08:23
Yeah, it’s a continuation there’s and you know, we always talk about the artificial division of one Pasha to another, but this clearly is a continuation, and God so to speak, hasn’t finished speaking. And, and the flip side of being just an ezrach, just a settler, a renter on the land, is that you definitely can, and we talked about it last week, that you can be discarded from the land. But what I am amazed by is the poetry The Haunting way that it describes what it’s like to be in exile, and of course, for the biblical critics who claim that parts of the total were written much later, that may have been written in exile, you can say, hey, you know, I get it. This is written where people have experienced this. And for people that believe that the Torah is prophetic. How prophetic can you get? And there’s this recurring theme of the neurosis, the psychology of being alienated from your land, where you feel you’re being pursued, and there is no pursuer there. That just blew me away.
Adam Mintz 09:49
I would agree with what you said. And I would say it just a little differently. And I would say is, wow, I was psychological, the Torah is. Right, the worst fear is to feel like you’re being pursued. But to have no pursuer. It’s one thing to be pursued. Because if you’re pursued, you know what, you know where to run away to. But if you just feel pursued all the time, that’s really scary, because there’s no pursuer. But what you said is also interesting. The poetry… this part of the Torah is called Vetochacha, which is the warnings, and the tradition and synagogue is to read these verses in a in an undertone, which is really interesting. And that it’s symbolically to say, God, I hope you don’t hear this. And you got you got to eat that up. Right? God, I hope you don’t hear this.
Geoffrey Stern 10:57
You know, I understand that the Klausenburger Rebbe, who was a survivor of the Holocaust and lost his whole family. And when they read these verses quietly, he clapped on the table. And he said, Say it loud. It’s happened already….
Adam Mintz 11:17
You know that story from Rabbi Riskin, the same place I know that story … The Klausenburger Rebbe he lost his entire family. And he says, Say it loud we lived it and now we get to live the good things.
Geoffrey Stern 11:29
Well, you know, if Madlik is anything, it’s about clapping on the table and saying listen to the verses. So here we are in Klausenburger fashion. So, I named this episode, a driven leaf. And any American who grew up when I did read the book, The Driven Leaf (by Milton Steinberg), and I believe Rabbi, You gave a podcast series on great American Jewish thinkers…
Adam Mintz 12:04
You’re connected to Park Avenue Synagogue; the rabbi was the rabbi at Park Avenue synagogue. He was the one of the great rabbinic minds of the 20th century, Milton Steinberg and he wrote an amazing book called as As a Driven Leaf.
Geoffrey Stern 12:18
So, in the beginning of The Drivel Leaf, it has a quote, and it brings the word Driven Leaf, the same word עָלֶ֣ה נִדָּ֔ף. But it doesn’t quote our verse in Leviticus, it quotes Job 13: 24-25. It says, (24) Why do You hide Your face, And treat me like an enemy? (25) Will You harass a driven leaf, Will You pursue dried-up straw? So the fascinating thing is that in our text, we are kind of cursed with being a driven leaf, this is what will happen to you, if you don’t observe the commandments. And in Job, we turn that around, and we say to God, will you pursue a driven leaf. And that’s the fascinating aspect of the verses that we’ve just read. On the one hand, they describe where the Jews will be if they don’t listen to Bechukotai, to my commandments. And on the other hand, it so represents a very large portion of Jewish life, where we were pursued by pursuers who weren’t there, where we were a driven leaf. And there is this kind of dialectic this conflict between looking at it as a curse, and understanding it as this sympathetic understanding of what it is to be a nation who has suffered all these things. And that’s why I focus on this amazing prose, this amazing insight that the text shows to the condition of the alienated person and the alienated people.
Adam Mintz 14:24
So I’ll tell you something amazing. You mentioned the fact that you know, the Bible scholars say that this was written later. You see, you don’t need to say that. Nachmanides, Rambam, one of the famous medieval Spanish commentators on the Torah, he says that he says the following thing, this poetry Vetochacha, the warning, is actually mentioned twice in the Torah here, and then at the end of the Torah before the Jews enter the land of Israel, and the Rambam says that the two times are for the two different exiles, the first exile was after the destruction of the First Temple. And the second exile is after the destruction of the Second Temple. So, when you say that the Jews lived this or people in exile live this, the Rambam says the Torah is actually prophesizing, about this reality, which is really just an amazing thing, right? That this is what’s going to happen. This, this, this very graphic description is really what happened to the people.
Geoffrey Stern 15:28
That means that we’re kind of on the same page. And that is an ongoing theme that I’ve always had, you know, a podcast, that whether you look at the Bible, as written by people and put together and higher biblical criticism, or whether you look at it as a believing Jew, the ultimate outcome is the same that either it predicts or it describes our people. And that is what we all, you know, ultimately have ownership of. And that’s what makes it you know, our book, and it belongs to our people in a profound way.
Adam Mintz 16:12
Yeah, and actually in this Vetochacha section, you get that feeling more than in most parts of the Torah. I wonder, and this is just an interesting thing to think about. Why it is that these warnings are done in such a poetic manner. Most of the Torah isn’t poetic like this. Why is this part of the Torah so poetic?
Geoffrey Stern 16:35
You know, I think you can say it’s poetic. And you can say it’s emotional. And you can say it’s empathetic. But I really feel that no matter what side, you stand on the author of these words, God, whoever. There’s real empathy here, and there’s real understanding here, and there’s real sympathy, simpatico here, and it comes across, even, even from the beginning, when it says that I, I took you out of Egypt, to be slaves, no more, who break the bars of your yoke, and made you walk erect. I mean, where have we seen those words written about the Jews coming out of Egypt, we made them free, we made them this, but it’s an intro to what comes to follow that I gave you freedom to walk erect, and then in exile, you walked bowed in exile, you were afraid of the shadows in exile, you were a driven leaf. I think it’s all it’s all it’s, it’s, it’s much more poetic than it describes the beauty of living in the land, it really has this connection to what it was like, out of the land. And that is so so powerful, both for a nation. But I think also for individuals, for individuals who are alienated, for individuals who feel they do not belong. This is the power of this document. And I think this is why we are studying till today.
Adam Mintz 18:26
I think I mean, that point, is a great point, which is that the Torah is as relevant today as it ever was. And the reason we study it every single year is because every year it means something else. And we were talking before that the tragic shooting in the school in Texas. And you know, the answer is, this is the week for Vetochacha. And I’m sure many rabbis are gonna say that, you know, the idea of the warnings of all the bad things. I mean, you know, and then you we live a tragedy like this. And you’ll wonder I mean, this isn’t what’s described in the Torah, but you wonder that the Torah is warning us already about tragedies about being careful about all of those things.
Geoffrey Stern 19:06
You know, I said before, when I picked up on this concept of the driven leaf, how Job even took it in a different perspective, where the Bible, where we’re reading it, looks at it as a punishment, drove, flips it and says, Would you, would you, would you go after a driven leaf, would you persecute a driven leaf? So some of the verses here it says in 26: 19, and I will break your proud glory, I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. And I’d like for a second to focus on how that poetic metaphor has played out in Jewish history, I mean, or even in common, is Israeli vernacular, which is one of my favorite, go to aspects of this podcast. You know, Ross, he talks about how you make your heaven as iron and your earth as copper, and he talks about the different characteristics of iron and copper. But, you know, we all know about Iron Dome, the כִּפַּת בַּרְזֶל, which is the modern defense system for the State of Israel. And you got to believe that it kind of comes from this metaphor. And again, it kind of flips it in a sense, saying that these words that were used for the uneasiness of the exile can also be turned around and protected. I mean, my wife and I are now watching on HBO plus an Israeli TV show that is called כיפת ברזל and on HBO plus, it’s called the Commandments. And it uses the word kippah as a yarmulke, a kippah. And it talks about a brigade of the Cheredim who are in the army. But this, this taking of these words, out of our parsha, and manipulating them in different ways, has both protective and otherwise, It’s just fascinating to me, this concept of כיפת ברזל.
Adam Mintz 21:52
you’ll love that phrase,
Geoffrey Stern 21:53
I do. And you know, the other thing that comes to mind is, we all know the beautiful song of Jerusalem of Gold. And, you know, it became the mantra, the theme song of the Six Day War. And there was a singer called Meir Ariel, who was a soldier. And he actually saw his comrades die. And he actually saw the cost of that victory. And he wrote a song sung to the same tune as Jerusalem of Gold, called Jerusalem of iron. And again, it was called ירושלים של ברזל and it talked about the cloud of war, it talked about what it took to gain these pieces of land. And after all, what have we been talking about for the last two weeks? It’s what land means? Are we owners of land? Are we owned by land? And in the the notes for the show, on Sefaria you can see, all the lyrics that he wrote, oh, my Jerusalem of I know, Doc lead, can you not see no wailing at your wall? Now, we set you free. It’s very cynical. It’s very so much against the whole concept of you have a war you publish an album. And, I think there is this aspect here, between the driven leaf that is in our parsha, and the driven leaf that is in a job that kind of addresses this dialectic between what is a curse? And who are we and what have we accomplished? I don’t know. It’s, it’s very fascinating to me how these many of these words were taken.
Adam Mintz 24:03
Well, I mean, let’s, let’s go back to יְרוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל זָהָב and ירושלים של ברזל, the fact that again, it’s the flipside, the very song, the very phrase that that we use, to describe the glory of Jerusalem is exactly the same phrase that he uses to describe the tragedy or the challenges. That’s a very Jewish idea. And that’s what we find in vetochacha as compared to last week’s Parsha. The idea that the good and the bad are literally flip sides of one another, I think is a very powerful idea. It’s kind of a healthy way to look at things, if you’re good, then x will happen. And if you’re bad, then negative x will happen, you know, but they’re all related to one another. And I think that to me, that’s a very powerful idea, in the Torah, and it’s seen in this week’s parsha more than anywhere else.
Geoffrey Stern 25:00
And I think ultimately, the fact that the Torah invests this type of literary, poetic symbolism in the exile. At the one hand, yes, it is a curse. But at the other hand, there is this profound empathy and understanding. And I think that’s ultimately what comes out of this. And you know, you look at this, this word, a driven leaf, which is just such a powerful metaphor, and you can’t but think of the Yom Kippur Unetaneh Tokef, where it talks about, We come from dust and return to dust, we labor by our lives for bread, we are like broken shards, like dry grass, like a withered flower, like a passing shadow, and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that passes like a dust that scatters like a fleeting dream. But you are the king who lives eternal, and you can’t. The poetry of all of those metaphors could only be written by a people who was a passing shadow. And who was liked dust that scatters. And I think that that comes out so profound, that it almost transcends the curse.
Adam Mintz 26:35
That’s interesting. I mean, so now, in the last five minutes, so we’re changing the argument a little bit. And that is that the poetry actually kind of softens the blow.
Geoffrey Stern 26:49
It softens it, but there’s ownership there. There’s, there’s, there’s only one God, or only one author who could have written this, and that is a God, and an author who is with us, that is a God or an author who loves us, or who is a part of us. And that’s why the punch line is so powerful, that it talks about, and I am the God of Yitzchok and Yakov and Avraham. And the punch line is, and I will remember the land and it’s of your land. So, you know, this is a people that was exiled from the land, when Yehudah HaLevi wrote a book called The Kuzari, which was an argument for the superior nature of the Jewish people. The name that he gave the book was the Kuzari, in defense of the Despised Faith. You can say whatever you want about his arguments for how superior we are, but it comes from a place of being at the bottom of the poll, so to speak.
Adam Mintz 28:04
Yeah, there’s no question that That’s right. That’s interesting about Kuzari means that we’re just at the bottom. And it’s only you can only appreciate all these things. It’s people who lived and experienced and wrote about what it means to be on the bottom, and it really goes back to the rabbi Riskin and the Klausenburger. And that is, you know, we know what it is to be on the bottom. But you know, we don’t need to keep that a secret. We know what it is, we need to say that loud, because we’ve been on the bottom so much, we deserve not to be on the top. That’s such a great Jewish idea, isn’t it?
Geoffrey Stern 28:35
It is an it’s an idea for nations. But it’s also an idea for individuals. And it’s almost an implicit argument for saying, unless you really understand what it means to be a driven leaf. Unless you understand what it means to be a cloud in passing. Maybe you can understand what it is to return to a land and to be a privileged to have a land.
Adam Mintz 29:09
Well, that’s the story of the State of Israel. And that is we appreciate what the state of Israel is, because we didn’t have it for 2000 years. Had we had it all along. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal. Right. But I mean, that was the celebration. And you know, Sunday is Jerusalem Day you talk about יְרוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל זָהָב, Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the Six Day War, and you know, we still remember that and they still dance in the streets of Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day because it’s still a celebration.
Geoffrey Stern 29:38
Well, absolutely. And it seems to me that in this argument, you understand the importance of being in the land, but you also understand and value that being out of the land and the experience that the Jewish people have out of the land. And you know, I As I was thinking about this, Franz Rosensweig was a great Jewish thinker. And he ultimately decided he parted with his friend Gershom Scholem, who made aliyah to Israel, because he believed that the natural state of the Jew was to be outside of the land was to be a driven leaf was to be a passing cloud. You know, he wrote at one point, “it is only by keeping their ties to the diaspora, that Zionists will be forced to keep their eyes on the goal, which is to remain nomads, ever there.” So this sense that we’ve had over these last weeks, where we look at the sabbatical cycle, and we look at the fact that even when you’re in the land, you’re only a renter, not an owner, you’re an alien, you’re there by the grace of God, and that when you’re outside of the land, you are this driven leaf, which is a curse, but also an amazing insight into what life is. I think what Rosenzweig was saying that you need both and you need the tension between the both. And I think that’s ultimately what the two Bechukotai that we have in this week’s parsha really teaches us if you listen to the Bechukotai, and if you don’t listen to the Bechukotai, the lessons of being in the land, the lessons of being outside of the land, and that’s ultimately what makes us so special.
Adam Mintz 31:39
I think that’s a beautiful way to end I want to wish everybody a Shabbat Shalom, you should enjoy this wonderful Shabbat and this in a sense, frightening parsha and we look forward to seeing you next week as we begin the book Barmidbar; the book of Numbers.
Geoffrey Stern 31:52
Shabbat shalom. Thank you all for joining and listen to our podcast and share it with your friends. Thank you so much
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/408510
Listen to last week’s episode: this is MY land