Painting by Yoram Raanan
Parashat Bechukotai is the thirty-third weekly portion in the Torah and the tenth and final one in the Book of Leviticus (26:3-27:34). It is often read together with its predecessor, Parashat Behar, and they have much in common. First of all, the beginning of Chapter 25 notes that these laws were given on Mount Sinai, which is repeated at the conclusions of Chapter 26 and Chapter 27. This indicates that the yearlong Sinai experience is drawing to a close, and the next book will focus on the journey from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land.
Beyond the framing device, the text refers back to the previous portion. In 26:3-46, the Torah urges the people to keep God’s commandments, which will bring the nation prosperity and security; the alternative, disobeying God’s laws, will bring agricultural, military and political disaster — structured in sevens: “I will punish you for your sins seven times over” (v. 18); “I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve” (v. 21); “I will afflict you for your sins seven times over” (v. 24); “I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over” (v. 28). While Parashat Behar talks about the positive cumulative effect of seven cycles of seven years, totaling forty-nine, Parashat Bechukotai talks about seven to the fourth power, or forty-nine times forty nine. Ultimately, the aim is the same: to establish that God is the true owner of the land. In the affirmative sense, this may be accomplished by the observance of the sabbatical years; conversely, this may be accomplished through the punishment of defeat and exile (vv. 34-35): “Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.” Nevertheless, God promises He will eventually redeem and restore Israel.
And what of the fiftieth year, the jubilee? In order to end on a positive note (and with a final set of mitzvot), Chapter 27 discusses the laws of donating to and redeeming from the Sanctuary, whether one vows to give the value of a person, an animal or a piece of land — the last of which depends on how many years remain until the jubilee.
While the laws of the sabbatical year are observed even today in the Holy Land, the laws of the jubilee year await the restoration of Israel to its pre-exilic state.
The portion from the Prophets is Jeremiah 17, which cuts to the heart of what separates a blessed person from a cursed one: the former has faith in God, while the latter relies on the human application of power. Italian and Yemenite Jews read Ezekiel 34, which describes the ingathering of the scattered sheep of Israel.