This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
Parashat B’hukotai is one of the Torah portions that makes me cringe. Like chapter 28 of the book of Deuteronomy, it promises abundant blessings to those who obey God’s commandments and ghastly disasters for those who do not. So when bad things happen to good people, as they always do, some good people assume that the punishment is divine retribution for sin.
These sections of Leviticus and Deuteronomy follow a pattern of legal codes from the ancient Near East: A statement of laws is followed by a promise of blessings for those who obey them and curses for those who resist. This also was the pattern for treaties made by powerful rulers with the vassal kings whom they “protected.” If the vassal kings did not live up to their oaths, their rulers exacted terrible punishments, not only on the kings, but also on the people they ruled.
A Warning for Leaders
To me, Parashat B’hukotai makes more sense when read as a code for communities and their leaders rather than for individuals. When a nation’s leaders enact wise and just policies, their communities regularly reap prosperity, contentment, and peace. In contrast, corrupt leaders often bring unmerited suffering on their people.
In the parashah, God promises to reward obedience to the covenant with good crop yields, good health, and freedom. Resistance to the moral law will be punished first with disease and famine, then with increasingly terrible disasters. “I will wreak misery upon you,” God says. “Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin (Leviticus 26:33).”
As modern translator Robert Alter notes, “The section of curses is structured as a sequence of downward spiraling disasters. After each set of punishing blows, God, as it were, pauses to see if Israel will correct its ways. When this does not happen, He intensifies the catastrophes…” These include pestilence, environmental degradation, and the scattering of the people.