B’chukotai

(Link to something written last year, if anyone is interested: http://gallery.mailchimp.com/d321af6b315dab43e32ca6843/files/c7f4f4a0-9c91-4732-88c1-2f4041d6c5cf.pdf )

The book we will be completing this Shabbat IYH, is referred to in English as “Leviticus” – fittingly so, since the majority of the book is dedicated to the service of the Kohanim (descendants of Levi). The Hebrew name, however is “Vayikra” – which certainly is the first word of the book – but what does Hashem’s “call[ing]” have to do with the book as a whole?

The word “Vayikra” appears in a Sefer Torah with its last letter – an Aleph – written much smaller than the rest of the letters, and virtually every other in a Sefer Torah. The standard-size letters spell out the word vayikar, meaning, “he encountered, he chanced upon.” Unlike vayikra, which refers to a purposeful calling or summoning, vayikar suggests an accidental meeting.
Chazal explain that this peculiar font change highlights the difference between the call to Moshe (an endearing, complete, clear communication), and Hashem’s appearance to the pagan prophet Bilaam (a casual, incomplete encounter).

Fast-forward to the end of Sefer Vayikra, to this week’s parsha of B’chukotai. In Perek 26, we read the frightening passages of the Tochacha, which details the terrible fate that will befall the Jewish people if we fail to observe the mitzvot and forsake our covenant with Hashem.

The key-word of this section of the Torah is the word keri. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the word “keri” appears seven times in the Tochacha, surely with some significant message. Two of the usages, by way of example:
וְאִם-בְּזֹאת לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי
וְהָלַכְתִּי עִמָּכֶם, בַּחֲמַת-קֶרִי וְיִסַּרְתִּי אֶתְכֶם אַף-אָנִי שֶׁבַע עַל-חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם
“If in spite of this you still do not listen to Me but continue to be hostile towards Me, then in My anger I will be hostile towards you, and I myself will punish you seven times for your sins.” (26: 27-28)

He translates the word here as “hostile”. There are other suggestions: The Targum reads it as “harden yourselves”, Rashbam as “refuse”, Ibn Ezra as “overconfident”, Rav Saadia as “rebellious”.

The Rambam, however, gives it a completely different interpretation. Rambam understands keri to be related to the word mikreh, meaning “chance”. In his interpretation. the curses are not Divine retribution. Hashem won’t be raining down fire and brimstone. The curse is that Hashem will withdraw his special protection over us, and allow others to relentlessly attack us.
It goes like this: If Am Yisrael believes in Divine providence, they will be blessed by Divine providence. If they see history and existence as mere chance, then indeed they will be left to chance.

We can now see the bridge between the beginning and end of Sefer Vayikra: The difference between mikra and mikreh – between history as G-d’s purposeful call versus history as one random event after another with no underlying purpose or meaning – is, in the Hebrew language, almost imperceptible. The words sound and appear almost identical, with one small difference; the aleph. The letter aleph is almost inaudible, and its appearance in a Sefer Torah at the beginning of Vayikra (the “small aleph“) is almost invisible.

The Torah is telling is that we cannot expect that Hashem’s presence will always be as obvious and revealed as it was by Yetziat Mitzrayim or Matan Torah. For the majority of history, “finding” and sensing Hashem will depend heavily on our own sensitivity and persistence. For those who look, it will be visible; for those who listen, it can be heard. But the key is to actually look and listen. If you choose not to see or hear, then vayikra will become vayikar, and events that unfold will seem like pure chance.

Hashem is telling us in the Tochacha that if you believe that history is chance, then it will become exactly that for you.The fact that the Jewish people have been able to survive and endure (and proliferate) for centuries, despite being such a small, vulnerable, persecuted people, without a sovereign land to call our own – rebuilding after the Holocaust, winning wars for control over (at least parts of) Eretz Yisrael – is a testament to Hashem’s Divine hand in this world. Jewish survival isn’t mere happenstance.

The first word of the central book of the Torah is Vayikra, “And He called”. A central part of being part of Hashem’s nation is to believe that what happens to us as a people is G-d’s call to us – to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Finally, I think this ties idea ties in with the pivotal, comforting promise at the end of the Tochacha.
וזכרתי את בריתי יעקוב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכר והארץ אזכר

Hashem promises to remember his covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and then says He will also remember the Land.

If we regard Eretz Yisrael as something special (an important point missed by the Meraglim, as we’ll read in a few weeks), and appreciate what we’ve been given to this point, and yearn for what we still hope to achieve, then we will be answering the call of vayikra, and not missing the point by thinking it’s all mikreh. It can be extremely difficult to believe after an attack, a barrage of missiles, soldiers being killed or captured, chas v’shalom, that it’s all for some purpose and part of Hashem’s plan. But if we stay the course, and are machshiv the land, machshiv the kedoshim who have died for the land, and show our love for the land, then Hashem promises to do the same, and hopefully return us completely to the land with the binyan Beis HaMikdash, b’meheirah b’yameinu.

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