Parashat Behar Bechukotai

Torah from Around the World 165

by Rabbi Michael Dolgin,
Senior Rabbi,
Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto

No portion in our Torah discuss Judaism on a planetary scale more clearly than Behar-Bechukotai. The commandment of the sabbatical year makes clear that all the earth, not just that of the Land of Israel, belongs to God and is only on loan to us. This concept reminds us of Rashi’s first comment on Torah at its very beginning. He asserts in his initial comment on Genesis 1:1 that the Story of Creation itself is presented primarily so that, having established divine ownership of all the earth, one land might be sanctified and bequeathed to our people as a sacred possession. In those famous words, the relationship of the Holy to the earth itself is filtered through the lens that is our Land of Israel. Likewise, the primary topic of this week’s portion share social and ethical laws that are considered relevant and applicable only in Eretz Yisrael.

Despite this primary focus, this week’s portion also contains one of the rare references in Torah to the dispersion of Jews throughout the earth. The concepts of exile and Diaspora are rooted in Jewish history and thought. We are accustomed to these two terms in English as well as to their Hebrew equivalents:  exile – galutand Diaspora – tefutzot. These two terms represent distinct assumptions through which we might view Jewish existence throughout the world and their relation to Israel. The former term expresses a judgment. The presence of Jews in communities around the globe is taken to be (to put it politely) a consequence for sinful behavior.

Galut is not only a place, but a state. We are estranged and afar from the holy and from the right and righteous path. It is not surprising that the term diaspora – tefutzot has replaced exile in most modern conversations. The presence of Jews dispersed around the world is a reality to be acknowledged. The Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv represents this approach. Even in a museum in the State of Israel itself, Jewish history, culture, art and architecture from all places are to be acknowledged. Neither of these extreme approaches seems to encapsulate the issues inherent in our complex geographical reality. However, this week’s portion uses another term.  The key words are found in Parashat Bechukotai, Chapter 26, verse 33. The JPS translation offers:  “And you I will scatter among the nations…”    What does it mean to be a scattered people?  This unusual approach calls for greater consideration.

The beginning of Parashat Bechukotai is a challenging passage. It describes divine consequences for our failure to observe the sabbatical year and acknowledge divine sovereignty over the physical world. The context of the mention of the scattering of the People of Israel is a negative one. However, commentators do not uniformly reflect this thinking. Rashi’s comment on verse 33 talks of the challenge of, and the therapy for, being a scattered people:  “This characteristic (being scattered) is hard indeed, for when the members of a nation are exiled to a single place, they see and take comfort from one another.”  It is hard to be a global nation, living at so many different places on the earth. It would be easy to lose heart. However, when we continue to sense the presence of other Jews, to see one another, we are able to find strength and comfort. Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor, a student of Rashi’s grandson Rabbeinu Tam, described our being scattered as an act of divinechesed, that God shows loyalty to us by giving us many places to plant roots. Bechor Shor’s depiction is not entirely positive, however. Our being scattered is a source of safety, making it harder for our people’s enemies to attack us. While he lived in a time without a sovereign State of Israel to offer protection, his words are not without relevance today. Recent statistics indicate that with growing urbanization, 50% of all Jews today live in five major urban centres (New York, Los Angeles, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa). This concentration makes us stronger and potentially more vulnerable at the same time.

The Hebrew term for a people scattered among the nation is unfamiliar. In fact, its root, zayin resh heh, occurs with this meaning only three times in the entire Torah. Other than our verse, the other two examples are difficult. After the episode of the Golden Calf, the idol is burnt to a fine powder which is then “scattered” over water (Exodus 32:20). This imagery comes from the rite of the Sotah, or suspected adulteress (Numbers 5). The connection implies that a test is required to understand whether the Israelites were rejecting God with the Golden Calf or misguided and confused under difficult circumstances and after centuries of bondage. The other use of this root comes from the end of the story of the rebellion of Korah. In that story, the proper offering of incense over fire is used as a test to separate true leaders from selfish rebels. The remaining coals from that key moment are “scattered” outside the camp as they have become holy (Numbers 17:2). The shared element in these two stories is that of a trial or examination. Only through scattering can the sacred be separated from the profane. Only in this way can we determine the intentions that lie beneath our choices.

Our people, while urbanized and concentrated in certain centers, continue to be present around the globe. This reality is neither a simple factoid nor a divine punishment. Perhaps our being scattered should be viewed as a test. An opportunity to prove our true nature in the way we connect with and care for one another. Large and small communities, urban and isolated populations, may face different challenges and opportunities. This week’s portion reminds us that, as a people, we face them together.