In this week’s Torah portion, Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34), God promises to reward those who obey him and severely punish those who do not. Although God’s decision depends on a person’s conduct, there is another factor, a historical one: the privileges enjoyed by Israel because of the patriarchs, or the merit of the patriarchs.
God will punish Israelite sinners but will not destroy them utterly because, “Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:42).
The promises God granted the patriarchs in Genesis serve as an insurance policy: Even if Israel forgets God’s commandments, the patriarchs’ merit will be a guarantee that God will not annihilate Israel.
The sages ask: “Until when did the merit of the patriarchs last?” The point when that merit began is clear: during the era of the patriarchs. But, when does it end?
The very fact that the sages even ask this question attests to the wide rift they clearly identify between the biblical era and theirs. The destruction of the Temple and Israel’s exile from the ancestral homeland do not permit the fulfillment of the above-mentioned biblical theology. The sages sense that the patriarchs’ merit has been rendered null and void, that God’s promise to remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no longer being fulfilled and that they – the sages and all Israel – have been jettisoned from history and will not return until they abandon their wicked ways.
This discrepancy between biblical theology and reality cannot be allowed to continue in the sages’ world, and so they search for signs that will allow them to identify the precise point when the patriarchs’ merit ended, and when reward and punishment became solely dependent on human action.
Four creative solutions are proposed in one midrash: “(1) Rabbi Tanhuma, Rav in the name of Rabbi Hiya Rabba, Rabbi Menahema, Rabbi Brachiya and Rabbi Helbo in the name of Rabbi Abba son of Zavda, said: The patriarchs’ merit continued until Jehoahaz, as it is written, ‘But the Lord was gracious unto them, and had compassion on them [and had respect unto them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither hath he cast them from his presence until now]’ [2 Kings 13:23]. Up to that moment, the patriarchs’ merit existed.
“(2) Rabbi Joshua son of Levi said: It continued until Elijah, as it is written, ‘And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said: “O Lord [the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel]” [1 Kings 18:36].’
“(3) Samuel said: ‘It continued until Hosea, as it is written, ‘And now will I uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers, and no man shall deliver her out of my hand’ [Hosea 2:12]. The word ‘man’ obviously refers to Abraham, as it is written, ‘Now therefore restore the man’s wife’ [Genesis 20:7]. The word ‘man’ also refers to Isaac, as it is written, ‘What man is this?’ [Gen. 24:65]. Finally, the word ‘man’ refers to Jacob as well, as it is written, ‘and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents’ [Gen. 25:27].
“(4) Rabbi Yudan said: It continued until Hezekiah, as it is written, ‘That the government may be increased [and of peace there be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it through justice and through righteousness from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts doth perform this]’ [Isaiah 9:6]” (Vayikra Rabbah 36:6).
According to the interpretation of Rabbi Tanhuma or Rabbi Menahema – depending on which source one uses – the patriarchs’ merit lasted until the era of Jehoahaz, king of Israel. During his reign, the Bible explicitly states that God had compassion for Israel “because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and that “neither hath he cast them from his presence until now.” The words “until now,” as noted in the midrash, refer to the last moment of God’s protection over his children due to their ancestors’ merit. That protection lasted “until now,” but thereafter it ceased to exist.
For his part, Rabbi Joshua suggests that the patriarchs’ merit ceased being relevant in an early era, in the days of Elijah the Prophet. When Elijah, praying on Mount Carmel, beseeches God to accept his sacrificial offering in his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he refers to the Almighty as “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel,” praying, “let it be known this day [hayom] that thou art God in Israel.” Rabbi Joshua focuses on the word “hayom,” and interprets it as “today and not one day longer.”
Samuel believes that the patriarchs’ merit lasted until the days of Hosea the Prophet. Hosea speaks of Israel as a woman who abandons her first husband – that is, God – to follow her many lovers, and who subsequently asks him to take her back. God will punish his wayward wife “and no man shall deliver her out of my hand.” The word “man,” argues Samuel, is a code word for the three patriarchs, each of whom is referred to on different occasions by this word. God will punish Israel, who will no longer be protected by the patriarchs’ merit.
In Rabbi Yudan’s opinion, a verse from Isaiah shows that, under the reign of King Hezekiah, God promises to help Israel forever through his zeal but sometime during the king’s rule, the patriarchs’ merit ceases to protect Israel. From now on, the only factor determining reward and punishment will be God’s zeal.
All of these interpretations share the same working assumption that, in the homilists’ era, the patriarchs’ merit no longer protects Israel. Which leaves the question: What is to be done now?
“Rabbi Yuden son of Hanan, in the name of Rabbi Brachia, said: If you see that the patriarchs’ merit and the matriarchs’ merit have collapsed, you must be charitable to others, as it is written, ‘For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed’ [Isaiah 54:10]. The mountains are the patriarchs and the hills are the matriarchs; from this moment onwards, ‘My kindness shall not depart from thee.’”
Isaiah contrasts the transience of nature with the eternity of God’s compassion: “For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall my covenant of peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath compassion on thee.” Now that the patriarchs’ merit no longer protects them, Israel needs a new theology that will enable hope to endure; this theology takes the form of God’s compassion, which does not depend on any external factor but can be achieved if Israel acts charitably.
The above homilies display a vibrant debate that is very much concerned with the reality of the sages’ era, and which focuses on the gap between the biblical ethos and theirs.
Rabbi Acha concludes the discussion, saying: “The patriarchs’ merit lasts forever. We constantly recite the words, ‘For the Lord thy God is a merciful God; he will not fail thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he swore unto them’ [Deut. 4:31]” (Vayikra Rabbah, 36:6).
Does Rabbi Acha dispute the words of his predecessors, arguing that the patriarchs’ merit endures despite the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and Israel’s exile from the ancestral homeland? Or does he agree with them that the patriarchs’ merit has ended, although he’s unwilling to admit that the covenant with God is no longer in effect? Or is he saying that the patriarchs’ merit is still a tool that can be relied upon and that the issue of its not being expressed in the real world is the topic for another discussion?
Perhaps one must interpret Rabbi Acha’s homily in a different manner: not as the depiction of an actual or textual reality but rather as a prayer. The patriarchs’ merit exists, because it is written in Deuteronomy that God will not forget it. Nonetheless, we must continually pray that God can't forget.