Blessings and Curses
B'chukotai, the last parsha in the book of Vayikra, contains blessings and curses. The blessings are assured if we collectively follow the word of God; noncompliance will set in motion an array of curses that will bring us to our knees and lead us to the brink of destruction.
The blessings are conditional:
3. If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; 4. Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Vayikra 26:3,4
The curses are also conditional:
14. But if you will not listen to me, and do not perform all these commandments.... Vayikra 26:14
There is one verse that stands between the blessings and the curses - a strange verse, both in form and in content:
13. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; and I have broken the bars of your yoke, and march you upright. Vayikra 26:13
The Hebrew grammar is not easily translated into English. The first part of this verse is certainly framed in the past tense; it is God who took us from Egypt. Yet the last two phrases, "broken the bars" and "march you upright" are both written in language categorized in Hebrew grammar as "present ongoing tense", a form of present tense which may well include the future. Had this verse been written in more straightforward language, say in the future tense, it would be clear that this verse belongs with those immediately preceding – the blessings. Had it been written in a more easily recognizable present tense, it would be construed as a closing statement, not part and parcel of the blessings bestowed upon the people. As written, it is unclear if this is in fact a blessing, or a statement of a different nature altogether.
To make matters even more complicated, the meaning of the words themselves is somewhat elusive: the word komemiyut is often translated as "upright", though this word, or the entire idiom, is not clear. The Rashbam's,1 attempt to clarify this word may even make the verse less clear: Rashbam relates komemiyut to the preceding reference to the yoke of slavery. In other words, the "upright" stature of the Jewish People is the result of removing the yoke of slavery from their necks. This frames komemiyut as an outcome, not as an independent blessing, making the grammatical shift of tense all the more pronounced.
Pride and Arrogance
Rashi explains that komemiyut means 'to stand erect'. ,2 This definition is not easily justified with other sources: The Talmud notes that to stand with koma z'kufa, a fully erect posture, is a sign of arrogance.
Our Rabbis taught: Six things are unbecoming for a scholar. ... Some add that he should not take long strides nor carry himself with a fully erect posture ... since a Master has said: If one walks with upright posture even for four cubits, it is as if he pushed against the heels of the Divine Presence, since it is written, 'The whole earth is full of His glory.' Talmud Bavli Berachot 43b
Rashi himself uses this phrase to describe the haughty behavior of Dathan and Aviram, leading members of Korach's band of rebels:
27. So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Aviram, on every side; and Dathan and Aviram came out, and stood strong at the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children. Bamidbar 16:27
The Torah writes that they stood nitzavim - strong or defiant. Rashi explains that this means b'komah z'kufa, they stood strong - tall and erect, alluding to the negative connotation cited in the Talmud. If this is the case, why would Rashi use the same language to describe a very positive stance, an element of the blessing that is bestowed upon us if we adhere to God's commandments?
Two Types of Standing
Apparently, there is more than one type of standing tall. There is haughty, self-centered standing erect, and there is a second type which is part of our prayers and aspirations, the posture found in our verse in Vayikra. Rabbenu Bachya,3 explains that this blessing of "standing tall" has yet to be fulfilled: it is a promise that did not come to fruition during the First or Second Temple periods,4. According to this understanding, our puzzling verse is composed of two separate blessings. The first part speaks of the past, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves." The continuation of the verse is future-oriented, "and I (will) break the bars of your yoke, and march you upright."
This aspiration is incorporated in our daily prayers, and in the Grace After Meals. The wording of the morning service, especially according to the Sephardic custom, and the text of the Grace After Meals it quite clear that this verse in Vayikra was the liturgist's frame of reference: We pray that God remove the yoke with which we are encumbered and lead us, upright, to the Promised Land. This last element is crucial: this is no aimless march, for we are not truly free without a destination that imparts independence and pride. The positive nature of this upright stance, this bold march, stems from its' purpose: it leads to the Land of Israel.
This future-oriented approach, marching into Israel standing tall, may have its antecedents in the prototypical first redemption, the Exodus from Egypt. The Chizkuni draws a parallel between komah z'kufa and the description of the Jews leaving Egypt "b'yad rama" -- with an "uplifted hand":
This comment hearkens back to the verses describing the Exodus, and to the Chizkuni's unique explanation of the verse in Shmot:
8. And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharoh King of Egypt, and he pursued after the People of Israel; and the People of Israel went out with a high hand. Sh'mot 14:8
According to the Chizkuni, the description of the "high hand" indicates that the Jews did not "escape" from Egypt; they left with the acquiescence of the Egyptians.
Perhaps combining these two elements,5 gives us the fullest understanding of the scenario: Leaving Egypt at dawn, with the Egyptians' permission, rather than sneaking out at midnight when the Egyptians were preoccupied with the Plague of the Firstborn, was far more dignified,6. The Jews marched out of Egypt in daylight, with their heads held high.
The difference is dignity. This concept was articulated by the Hasidic master Rav Zadok HaKohen, who lamented that those who returned to Israel in his own day did so not with their heads held high, but with degradation, for they were in fact still in Exile -- despite geographically being located in the Holy Land. Without autonomy, ,7 subject to the whims of the ruling foreigners, their return to the Land of Israel is demeaning, not uplifting.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov chided those who do not feel the pull of the Land of Israel; he instructed them to pray to God that they be the ability to feel longing for the Land. Rav Nachman explained that the Land of Israel is inseparably intertwined with our faith: Before our daily declaration of faith, expressed in the Shma, we pray to return to our land. ,8 Rebbe Nachman understood the verse in Vayikra as it is reflected in the liturgy: We pray that God lead us to the Land of Israel, and "ultimately every step and every battle the Jews have undertaken has been toward and about the Land of Israel. ,9
The context of this verse may give us some tools to understand its meaning. As we have noted, two choices are presented, two paths through history: As a nation, we may choose to heed the Word of God, or to reject it. The verses thatintroduce each of these option are remarkably similar:
3. If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; 14. But if you will not listen to me, and will not do all these commandments; Vayikra 26:3,14
This pendulum-like relationship begins with the introductory verses to each of the sections, and carries through the entire section. Thus, the curses are described as the opposite of komemiyut:
36. And upon those who are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursues. 37. And they shall fall one upon another, as it were before a sword, when none pursues; and you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. 38. And you shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. Vayikra 26:35-38
Instead of pride – fear; instead of standing – falling; instead of autonomy –impotence; instead of return –exile, assimilation, and destruction. ,10
The situation of the Jew cowering in the exile is a curse and a desecration of God's Name. ,11
The verses of blessing, in which a triumphant march to the Land of Israel is promised, cannot be more different than this exile mentality. The Jewish People will return to their Land with head held high. What causes this pride, and what distinguishes it from the haughty demeanor, the arrogance which the Talmud decried as morally damaging and spiritually empty? The answer is simple: The arrogant expel God; they refuse to see the Hand of God in their lives or in human history. They credit themselves for their success. The Torah encapsulates this corrupted world view (weltanschauung) in one succinct verse in Devarim:
17. And you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this stature. Dvarim 8:17
A Divine Tour
The blessing of komemiyut, of komah z'kufa - walking erect - can be best understood when connected to the verse which precedes it:
12. And I will walk among you, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. Vayikra 26:12
Rashi's comments on this verse hold very deep theological insights:
And I will walk among you: 'I will stroll with you in the Garden of Eden, as one of you, and you will not be frightened by Me.' Perhaps you think this means people will not hold God in awe, therefore it continues, "I will be for you a God."
This is an incredible combination: God will walk with us, manifest, like a friend. We will appreciate God, understand the vast abyss which separates man from God, and yet feel close and comfortable. We are then able to hold our heads high, yet not be arrogant. This relationship existed at only one point in history: in the Garden of Eden. It did not last long; man was seduced into thinking that the abyss did not exist – that he could be like God.
4. And the serpent said to the woman, surely you shall not die; 5. For God knows that in the day you eat of it, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. Bereishit 3:4,5
Instead of strolling with God, man hid from God. In a verse reminiscent of Rashi's idyllic description of "And I will walk among you," vhithalachti, in Bereishit a similar word is used: mithalech:
And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Bereishit 3:8
The stroll was aborted. Rather than walking in stride with God, head held high, man hid, humiliated and embarrassed. Instead of Paradise, man would soon be exiled. And there, God's presence would no longer be apparent. In exile, fear is the norm, vulnerability man's constant companion. Man would lose his stature: ,12 Instead of standing erect, man would lay in a burial plot. ,13
And what of the instigator, the Serpent? He sold man a bill of goods, convinced him that he could be like a god. The Serpent was also punished with a loss of stature:
14. And the Lord God said to the Serpent, 'Because you have done this, you are cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life'. Bereishit 3:14
He was made to crawl – but prior to this episode the Serpent stood tall, b'koma zekufa:,14
R. Levi said: In the Messianic age all will be healed save the serpent and the Givonite; the serpent, as it is written, And earth shall be the serpent's food (Yeshayahu 65, 25); ... R. Issi and R. Hoshaya in the name of R. Hiyya the Elder said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him [the Serpent]: ‘I made you king over all the cattle and beasts, but you would not have it; therefore, MORE CURSED ARE YOU, etc.; I made you upright like man, but you would not; hence, UPON THY BELLY SHALL YOU GO; I made you that you should eat the food of man, but you would not; hence, AND EARTH SHALL YOU EAT; you desired to kill the man [Adam] and take his wife: therefore, AND I WILL PUT AN ENMITY BETWEEN YOU AND THE WOMAN.' Thus what he desired was not given him, and what he possessed was taken from him. Midrash Rabba Bereishit 20:5
Paradise, Eden, proximity with God was not enough; the Serpent, who tried to stand tall without God, was lowered, degraded,15 . The result was exile. Conversely, when the Jews left Egypt, they were lifted from the depths and made to stand tall, with dignity:
... He shall dwell on high... his bread shall be given, his waters shall be sure (Yeshayahu 33, 16); and also, He raises up the poor out of the dust (I Sam. 2, 8)-these are the Israelites who were buried among clay and bricks in Egypt, but whom God brought out with upright stature, as it says, And I made you go upright (Vayikra 26, 13)-hence: 'He raises up the poor out of the dust'. Midrash Rabba Sh'mot 25:8
The pendulum of Jewish history swings along this very axis: The Jews would march triumphantly to the Land of Israel, in dignity, in tandem with God. They were to live by the Word of God, which would keep them in the Land forever. When they sinned once again, they were exiled once again. Fear became their constant companion; even worse, like the serpent they lost their stature and their identity. This is the assimilation of which the verse warns: "And you shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up" (25:38).
Another swing of the pendulum, and another chance to reinstate Jewish independence in the Land of Israel, by the Word of God: The Jews returned, and rebuilt the Temple. But once again, the words of the Torah were abandoned, and the Second Temple was destroyed. There was one more glimmer of hope: brave soldiers who stood tall and strong, led by a shining star known as Bar Kochba.
He had two hundred thousand men of each class; and when they went forth to battle they cried, ' [O God,] neither help us nor discourage us!' Midrash Eicha Raba 2:4,16
No less a sage than Rabbi Akiva thought that Bar Kochba could be the Messiah, could restore Jewish sovereignty, Jewish dignity. Yet Bar Kochba and his men were infected with hubris. They prayed to God to leave them to their own devices, so confident were they of their own strength and virtue. When Bar Kochba turned his back on God, he was killed - according to tradition, by a serpent. ,17 The exile that followed lasted longer than any other.
From this exile we have now begun to emerge – hopefully, with heads raised high, not due to an exaggerated sense of self- worth, but because we know it is God who has chosen to take us along this historic path. This time, we will not hide, nor will we deceive ourselves. The pendulum has begun to swing back, and the blessings have begun to pick up momentum. We will walk this Land together with God.
1. Rashbam Vayikra 26:13
2. Rashi Vayikra 26:13
3. The same idea is found in the Shla Hakadosh commentary to Vayikra
4. Rabbenu Bachya Vayikra 26:13
5. In one edition of the Chizkuni bracketed words are added, bkumah zkufa "walking upright".
6. See Ktav Vkabala, citing the Vilna Gaon, who drew the same conclusion.
7. Yisrael Kedoshim section 5
8. Liquiti Maharan mahadura kama 195.
9 .Liquiti Halachot Birchat Hamazon, commenting on the phrase "May the Merciful break the yokes from upon our necks, and bring us back to our Land standing tall."
10. These parallels seem to have eluded all the commentaries. For a similar approach, see comments of the Chizkuni to Vayikra 26:25.
11. See Rabenu Bachya Vayikra 26:13, who sees within the curses, God's Name literally divided.
12. See Baba Batra 75a:
And I will lead you komemiyut, R. Meir says: [it means] two hundred cubits; twice the height of Adam.
13. One of the ramifications of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, was that death entered the world.
14. See Shla Hakadosh Toldot Adam rimzei otiot
15. See Toldot Yitzchak Bereishit 3:24, who insists that these verses should be understood literally: prior to the sin, the serpent walked and talked.
16. Compare with Yerushami Taanit 24a
17. Aicha Rabba 2,4: "He went and found a snake encircling his neck"