Bechukotai – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

The Sedra this week brings the Book of Vayikra, the “Torat Cohanim” to an end. It opens with promises based on observance and goes on to the consequences of despising or ignoring those rules. Thankfully there is the reassurance that even if we break the covenant God will not cast us away. It begins with the words

אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְו‍ֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם:
If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them

Those statutes and Commandments can be usefully marshalled into three forms. They can be self-evident socially (Mishpatim), formal religious instruction (Eidot) and seemingly unexplainable (Chukim). However they are all part of our being as Jews. They are classified as Mitzvot. Successful societies have rules not anarchy.

Further along in the Sedra we read in the Artscroll Chumash

וְאִם־תֵּֽלְכ֤וּ עִמִּי֙ קֶ֔רִי וְלֹ֥א תֹאב֖וּ לִשְׁמֹ֣עַ לִ֑
And if you treat Me as happenstance, and you do not wish to listen to Me

Rashi took the view that things do not arise out of happenstance or randomly and thus can be casually treated as such. As Jews we have a world view that places us within a relationship with God.

The translation of the word “keri” (קֶ֔רִי) is difficult. It is variously translated in different Chumashim:

  • In the Hertz and Cohen as “And if you walk contrary to me”

  • In the Birnbaum as “And if you still defy me”

  • In the Sefaria as “And if you remain hostile towards me”

Halachah, distinguishing between biblical and rabbinic law, represents how we interpret the mitzvoth and has successfully guided us in post Temple times. It has developed by study and careful interpretation to maintain its relevance. To approach it with hostility, defiance and a wish to be contrary either in custom or practice is not acceptable; it can have consequences.

As we approach Shavuot, distinguished as the day on which the Jewish people arrived and camped before Mount Sinai, we will read

Israel camped before the mountain

We approached as one people, united.

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