THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Behukotai – פרשת בחקתי
June 1, 2019 – כז אייר תשעט
Dwelling Securely in the Diaspora
After setting forth the laws relating to the sabbatical year and the jubilee, Scripture issues a Divine promise: “You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security (Leviticus 25:18).” Inversely, the sages regarded failure to adhere to the laws governing the land’s periodic rest as being a prime reason for Israel’s exile from its ancestral homeland (Shabbat 33a). While Israel dwells in the lands of its enemies, “then shall the land make up for its [missed] sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate (Leviticus 26:34).”
Scripture vouchsafes that compliance with the mandate to let the land lie fallow is rewarded with material abundance. “The land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security (25:19).” In light of the next verse, which acknowledges that some people will rationally question from where their food will come during the sabbatical year, Ramban interpreted “security” to mean that people will not need to uproot themselves during the sabbatical year in search of bread in neighboring lands. Rashi understood “security” to mean emotional calm; people will not suffer from anxiety wondering what they will eat in years of famine.
The Midrash understood “live upon it in security” to mean that Israel will not be scattered, be afraid, or be exiled (Sifra Behar 3). Torah Temimah grounded this explanation in the words of Scripture, clarifying that ישיבה connotes the opposite of scattering and בטח connotes the opposite of fear. The notion that dense settlement provides security and that a dispersed population, even on the periphery of the Land of Israel, is under threat is most apparent in I Maccabees 5. The Hasmonean brothers were called to rescue the Jewish populations of the distant provinces which feared imminent extermination at the hands of their heathen neighbors. Simon saved the Jews of Galilee, while Judah and Jonathan saved the Jew of Transjordan. All were repatriated to the area of dense Jewish settlement in and around Jerusalem. The Midrashic view of Leviticus is that it involves both a promise of safety in numbers and the psychological reassurance of knowing that there is safety in numbers.
In the next chapter, Scripture again emphasizes the promises of agricultural fecundity and national security. “Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land (Leviticus 26:5).” The Midrash interprets the seemingly redundant בארצכם “in your land” to mean that it is possible for Israelites to dwell securely in the Land of Israel but that it is impossible for them to do so anywhere else in the world (Sifra Behukotai 1). That is, “your land” has only one referent – Israel itself. Sifra’s negative view of the Diaspora is not surprising for a Tannaitic work written in the Holy Land. In addition to the argument that Sifra’s reading is the correct understanding of the verse, it is well known that the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael used every exegetical tool at their disposal to strengthen Jewish demographics in Israel and to prevent large scale defection to the Diaspora.
The commentators offered various theological reasons why security is possible only in the Holy Land. Sefat Emet explained that despite their being blessed with material prosperity, Jews in Eretz Yisrael still cleave to God and demonstrate their reliance on Him in their observance of sabbatical year and jubilee laws. In contrast, in the lands of the dispersion Jews do not have the opportunity to demonstrate such fealty to Heaven and thus cannot be afforded high levels of physical protection. Torah Temimah compared the nation of Israel to a sapling. Only in the proper soil can the sapling flourish. Even if they heed the Divine will in the Diaspora, Jews cannot excel there to the extent they would in the Holy Land, the seat of the Divine Presence. Only in the Promised Land can the nation deserve secure dwelling.
The later books of Scripture seem to support the Midrashic contention that the nation will enjoy security only in the Land of Israel. In his synopsis of early Israelite history, Samuel recalled: “And the Lord sent Jerubbaal and Bedan and Jephthah and Samuel, and delivered you from the enemies around you; and you dwelt in security (I Samuel 12:11).” Despite the chaotic nature of the Era of the Judges, the Israelites were able to enjoy security at those times when God sent heroic figures to the rescue. The glory days for ancient Israel occurred during the period of the United Monarchy, especially under Solomon’s reign. “All the days of Solomon, Judah and Israel from Dan to Beer-Sheba dwelt in safety, every one under his own vine and under his own fig tree (I Kings 5:5).” Jeremiah foresaw the rise of a virtuous scion of the Davidic dynasty. “In his days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure (Jeremiah 23:6).” The Diaspora prophet foresaw the ingathering of the exiles and restoration of Zion as the moment when security would finally be achieved: “And they shall dwell on it in security, when I have meted out punishment to all those about them who despise them (Ezekiel 28:26).”
Surprisingly, there are two late Aggadic works that interpret Leviticus 26:5 to mean that Jews will dwell securely in both the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora. The first is Midrash Lekach Tov, also known as Pesikta Zutreta, written by Rabbi Toviah ben Eliezer (12th century Balkans). The author regularly relied upon Sifra in his Torah commentary, but it seems that he consciously rejected Sifra’s understanding of Leviticus 26:5. The second work is Midrash Aggadah, a text of unknown authorship written in the early 13th century and published by Salomon Buber in 1894. According to Buber, the author of Midrash Aggadah wrote with Midrash Lekach Tov in front of him.
How could a rabbinic writer egregiously amend the homiletic tradition in a way that weakens the perceived superiority of Eretz Yisrael and puts the Diaspora on the same plane? The answer is simple. Life in the Diaspora is not always so terrible and does not always feel like a punishment; sometimes it is tolerable and at other times even quite enjoyable. For all of Scripture’s admonitions about how sinful behavior will lead to national misery and the dispersal of the Israelite population, those living in the “lands of the heathens” will make their own judgments about whether to rue, or instead even to cheer, their fate.
Commenting on the verse from the Flood story “But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot and it returned to him to the ark (Genesis 8:9),” Judah bar Nachman noted that had the dove found a place to rest it would not have returned to Noah. The homilist brought two similar examples. “Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression; when she settled among the nations, she found no rest (Lamentations 1:3).” Had the Jews found rest, they never would have returned to the Land of Judah אילו מצאה מנוח לא היו חוזרים. Moses warned in the Tokhecha, “Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest (Deuteronomy 28:65).” Again, Judah bar Nachman read into the text that had the Israelites found respite abroad they never would have returned home (Genesis Rabbah 33).
Rabbi Jose bar Hanina boldly asserted that four of Moses’ decrees concerning the fate of Israel were nullified by later prophets. He credited Jeremiah with nullifying the dire warning of Deuteronomy 28:65. Jeremiah instructed the departing Judahites to make the best of a bad situation in the lands of their dispersion. He ordered them to be loyal residents of territories in which they would make their new homes. “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit (Jeremiah 29:5).” Material success and a sense of security among the Jews of Babylonia made a return to Zion in the days of Cyrus an unpopular choice.
Whether to accept Sifra’s version of Leviticus 26:5, or instead that of Midrash Lekach Tov, is almost entirely a result of historical circumstance. For the Jew in late medieval Europe who lacked the right of domicile and feared for his physical safety because of occasional anti-Judaic violence, Sifra’s reading seems more reasonable. For the Jew living in 20th century America, Midrash Lekach Tov offered a necessary re-reading of the Jewish experience. But it behooves the Jew who believes that physical safety and social acceptance are possible in the Diaspora to evaluate current – and to estimate future -- conditions in France, Germany, Poland, the U.K, and in the United States in concluding for how long Jews will enjoy security in such lands. The answer given today may differ from that that French, English, and American Jews might have given thirty years ago.