Punishment and Passion / Parashat Behar-Behukotai

Everything that belongs to a person − his body, the members of his family, his livestock and land − can be converted to cash and offered to the Temple. And via this process, a man’s personal space is defined, as is that of the Temple.

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While the first half of Leviticus, the biblical book that we will finish reading this Shabbat, contains laws pertaining to the Temple and the sacrifices, the second half contains laws pertaining to life in the Promised Land ? that is, celebration of festivals, proper sexual and other behavior, etc.

An appropriate finale to this long list appears in the second part of the double Torah portion read tomorrow, Parashat Behukotai, describing the consequences of obeying or disobeying these strictures: “If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them” ‏(Leviticus 26:3‏), the Children of Israel will be richly rewarded: with fertile earth, peace and the inspiration of the shekhinah ‏(divine presence‏). However, “if ye shall reject my statutes, and if your soul abhor mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant” ‏(Lev. 26:15‏), God will impose a series of punishments as described in Leviticus Chapter 26. The chapter ends with a summary: “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” ‏(Lev. 26:46‏).

The “statutes and ordinances and laws” referred to are obviously those that have appeared previously in Leviticus: God has listed them, describing the rewards for obeying them and the penalties for disobeying, and then he essentially summarizes the entire book.

This simple literary composition would be self-understood were it not for the fact that immediately following is yet another chapter ? and it, too, ends with a summary: “These are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mount Sinai” ‏(Lev. 27:34‏). Chapter 27 thus offers an alternative conclusion to the Book of Leviticus. Rather than summing up the consequences of abiding by or violating the previously mentioned commandments, the chapter’s final verse ‏(which is also the last one in Leviticus‏) serves as a counterweight to the entire book.

Chapter 27 deals with laws pertaining to arakhim, pledging one’s value to the Temple, which are among the Torah’s most complex laws. If a person wants to measure his own value, he must calculate how much he is worth in monetary terms, in accordance with the scale presented here. The value set for someone between the ages of 5 and 20, for example, is different from that for a person between 20 and 60, and also from that of someone over the age of 60; the price of a man is also different from that of a woman. The value of an animal or of a plot of land intended to be pledged to the Temple can also be determined; here as well, the prices vary according to fixed parameters.

The laws governing the value of people and property are very different from the classical laws relating to sacrifices performed in the Temple. The latter strictures, outlined in detail in Leviticus, are concerned with such questions as which animal should be brought to the Temple for a voluntary offering and which for a mandatory one. The regulations related to establishing the value or worth of something or someone have nothing to do with legal obligations, but rather with situations in which a person of his own free will decides that he wants to pledge to the Temple the value of his body or of his property.

The most important element here ? the motivation behind such a decision ? is not even mentioned, although it can perhaps be gleaned from a careful study of the various regulations set out. They enable a person to pledge to the Temple the nominal value of the various components of the reality in which he lives: that of his body, his animals or his fields.

The system of setting a value on things thus allows the creation of a total economic reduction of reality. Everything that belongs to a person ? his body, the members of his family, his livestock and land ? can be converted into cash and can be offered as a gift to the Temple. And via this process, a man’s personal space, which includes the various items he prices, is defined, as is that of the Temple.

When a man chooses to bring himself and the reality that surrounds him to the Temple, it is as if he is trying to condense himself and everything belonging to him within that holy place: He aims to realize the human desire to become an integral part of the Temple, of wanting to nullify himself in the face of the infinite and of giving everything to God.

The laws relating to value teach man how to use the system that operates in the market ? whereby one converts goods into cash, commensurate with the value of those goods ? to create a symbolic system enabling the possibility of pledging to the Temple the value of a person rather than the person himself.

Biblical law moderates and refines this deep religious, suicidal passion, a passion that, in effect, is impossible to express without a perfected system of representations. The significance of the laws related to values in Leviticus’ final chapter is totally different from the significance of the strictures set out in previous chapters. The laws at the end, pertaining to offerings presented in the Temple, ritual impurity, sexual relations and celebration of festivals, and even the laws governing shmittah ‏(the act of letting land lay fallow every seven years‏) and the jubilee year ‏(the 50th year, when properties must be returned to their original owners and loans excused‏) ? these are all commandments that God imposes on man. Since the will to enforce these commandments is his, it is only natural that their culmination should be as described in Chapter 26, where the final verse outlines rewards for obedience and punishment for violations.

The laws governing value, as discussed in Chapter 27, do not, however, fit into this scheme. There is no punishment for those who do not comply, or reward for those who observe them, because God does not demand compliance. This system is not mandatory. These laws involve acts of free will that express a human, religious need to be closer to God and to contain oneself within him.

Perhaps that is why the final chapter of Leviticus gives the impression of being an appendix that has been attached somewhat artificially to the book. It would be pointless to place it before descriptions of the rewards and punishments described in the preceding chapters.

Chapter 27 is an autonomous unit and precisely for that reason, it reminds us of yet another function that biblical law perhaps fulfills: Such law does not only constitute a channel of communication that conveys God’s will to man, but also a system that protects man from his desire for close contact with his Creator, while enabling man to express passion.

Eyal Toueg “If ye walk in my statues,” says Behukotai, you will be rewarded with fertile earth and peace. Credit: Eyal Toueg

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