Stubbornness And Chance

Two interpretations of a word illustrate different understandings of punishments listed in Parashat Bechukotai.

Commentary on Parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34

As the Book of Leviticus, the book of sanctity, draws to a close, the Torah delineates the consequences of obedience and disobedience to Hashem (G-d)’s will. This is the Tochechah, the passage of admonition (chapter 26) that concludes the covenant of Sinai.

If the people embrace Hashem’s commands, the land will be blessed with prosperity, security and peace (verses 3-13). Conversely, rejecting Hashem’s edicts will result in the curses of disease (verses 16-17), famine (verses 18-20), wild beasts (verses 21-22), war (verses 23-26), destruction and exile (verses 27-39).

The purpose of these warnings is to stir the people to repentance. If the people do not heed the warnings, then the disasters become increasingly more dire.

Unique to this chapter is the word keri, appearing a significant seven times–and nowhere else in Tanach (Scriptures)–at transition points in this passage:

And if you walk with Me keri, and you will not desire to listen to Me, then I will add against you a plague, seven times your sins (26:21).

Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century commentator) notes that keri is first mentioned after the two warnings of disease and famine. Upon the determining third occasion of disregarding Hashem’s punishment, there follows the plague of wild beasts:

And if despite these you will not be chastised towards Me, and you walk with me keri; then I, too, shall walk with you b’keri, and so I will strike you seven times your sins (23-24).

Then follows war:

And if, in spite of this, you will not listen to Me, and if you walk with me b’keri; then I too will walk with you with the fury of keri, and I too will chastise you seven times your sins (27-28).

Then follows destruction and exile.

Eventually, the people will recognize their errors:

And they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, their trespass that they trespassed against Me, and also that they walked with Me b’keri; so will I walk with them b’keri, and I will bring them in the land of their enemies, perhaps then will their uncircumcised heart be subdued, and then will they recompense their iniquity (40-41).

What is keri, which seems to be the root cause of the people’s sin and the driving force of Hashem’s retribution? Quite a few interpretations have been suggested by the commentaries, but they fall into two categories:

1. keri = refusal

· Rashi quotes the 10th Century grammarian Menachem (ben Yaakov ibn-Saruq), who derives keri from a two-letter root kr, meaning “prevent, refuse, withhold.” Thus, Hashem warns–If you walk with Me in refusal, I will withhold My protection from you.

· Rashi says Menachem’s interpretation is close to the translation of Onkelos (2nd century translator of the Bible into Aramaic), who understands keri as “hardening, stubbornness, refusing to approach.” This view is supported by Tosafot (Talmudic scholars of 12th-13th centuries) on Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a. Hashem is saying–If you are unyielding to Me, I will respond in kind.

· Saadiah Gaon (882-942) [medieval philosopher and spiritual leader] similarly translates keri as “rebellion.”

2. keri = occurrence

· A very different approach to keri is also found in Rashi, who quotes Torat Kohanim (also called Sifra, the Jewish legal midrash on Vayikra). This interpretation derives keri from the root krh, meaning “to occur in an unplanned way.”

· Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, 12th century France) enthusiastically endorses this reading. It means that Hashem is displeased that the people obey Him only casually, intermittently, inconsistently. His punishment is to treat them in the same way, exposing them to the dangers of nature and their enemies.

· Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator), following this view, quotes the Philistines who considered whether the suffering they endured was by the Hand of G-d:

For it is not His Hand that has touched us; it is an incident (mikreh, also from krh) that has happened to us (Samuel I 6:9).

Employing this reading, Ibn Ezra hints that if the people of Israel regard the misfortunes that have befallen them as mere coincidences, they will not absorb the intended lessons of repentance.

We might return here to Malbim’s earlier comment: After two onslaughts of catastrophes (disease in verses 16-17 and famine in verses 18-20), you must not attribute them to natural forces. They are the result of Divine Providence. If you refuse to repent, Hashem will bring even worse devastation.

Rambam (Maimonides) develops this idea in the Laws of Fast Days (chapter 1):

1: It is a positive commandment from the Torah to cry out and to blow the trumpets for any trouble that befalls the community . . .

2: And this matter is of the ways of repentance, that at the time when a trouble comes, and they cry out over it and trumpet, all will know that it is because of their bad deeds that they have suffered . . . and that will bring about the removal of the trouble from upon them.

3: However, if they do not cry out nor trumpet, but rather say, “This event is of the way of the world that happened to us, and this trouble is a mere occurrence,” behold this is the way of cruelty, and causes them to become attached to their evil deeds. The trouble leads to other troubles. This is what is written in the Torah: and if you walk with me b’keri; then I too will walk with you with the fury of keri. That is to say, when I will bring trouble upon you so that you will repent, if you say that it is an occurrence, I will add to you the fury of that occurrence.

As Rambam further explains in The Guide of the Perplexed (3:36), the Torah imbues within us the idea that, as Hashem has complete control over all, He directs events in accordance with our deeds.

Now as much as ever, we must remember that calamity must be fought on two fronts: We must defend ourselves against threats from without, while at the same time improve our ways so as to deserve Hashem’s salvation.

Reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.


Discover More

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.