Rewards and Punishments
a.k.a. Parashat Bechuqotai (Leviticus 26:3 – 27: 34)
If the Israelites proved faithful, God guaranteed them rain and an abundance of food.
God also promised them victory in war and peace as a result, as well as protection from wild beasts. In
battle, God promised success in spite of any numerical advantages the enemy might have. God promised, too,
that the population would increase.
God promised to dwell among his people and never abandon them.
However, if the people broke God’s rules and the covenant, he would punish them
according to their actions. There would be physical illness, their enemies would ravage their crops, and they
would be defeated in battle and be subservient to their foes.
If such punishment had no effect, God would increase the people’s afflictions
sevenfold to pay the people for their arrogance. Their hard work would prove fruitless and their crops would
And if this bred defiance and bitterness in the people, God’s punishment would again
increase sevenfold. Wild beasts would ravage their children and their livestock, and the community would
If such harsh punishment did not do the trick, God would weigh in with another
sevenfold increase in punishment. The people would be put to the sword. Disease would drive the people out of
their walled cities and into the clutches of their enemies. There would not be enough food to keep the people
And if these punishments still bred defiance in the people, God promised to reduce
them to a state in which they cannibalized their own sons and daughters.
God would lay waste the people’s cities and temples and reject their worship. So
dreadful would the devastation be that even Israel’s enemies would be left aghast.
The Jews would then be scattered among the nations of the earth. Only then would the
vacated land experience respite from the devastation.
Those Jews surviving in the Diaspora would become nervous wrecks, fleeing even at the
sound of rustling leaves. They would lose their identities among the Gentiles and have to face the threat of
extinction. During this terrible journey towards oblivion, the people would recognize their defiance of God
and their guilt.
If in this downcast condition the people made amends for their guilt, God would
remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Still, the people would have to make good their debt –
for a time – by living among their enemies.
These were the terms laid down by God on Mount Sinai when making his pact with the
Then God told Moses that if a person wanted to make a special vow in which he
consecrated a person to God, or property such as an animal, a piece of land or a house, then an amount should
be paid in silver shekels according to a priest’s evaluation of the consecrated item, or according to a table
of evaluation God provided which reflected the ages of the consecrated people.
God also specified a set of rules relating to the redemption of the consecrated item,
which usually involved the payment of a penalty of one-fifth the valuation price.
God identified gifts that could not be dedicated through a vow. These included
firstborn animals that automatically belonged to God.
If people or property were devoted to God rather than consecrated, then such gifts
could not be redeemed – not even to spare the life of a person whose life had been dedicated to
These concluded the commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Commentary on the 33rd parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the
five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Oh dear, Methuselah!
Here God is depicted in very human terms indeed. So much so that he becomes instantly recognizable as an
archetypal figure. This is not an infinitely just and merciful God speaking, but a typical Ancient Near
Eastern tyrant setting down the terms of a vassal treaty with the people he’d agreed to protect. “If you obey
me, I will reward you … cross me, and I will punish you. I am your master and you are my subject
MS: Why should God not use
such a form when talking to his people? What better way to get them to understand that they were bound
together in a contractual relationship that brooked no avoidance of obligations!
SAS: Well, the simple answer
for me is that a God who uses man-made contracts might easily be supposed to be a fictional character created
by men. Assuming for a moment that you are right, and God is not man-made, when we look to the heavens, we
would surely expect a loftier example of a covenant. The tone of this is that of a local tyrant laying down
the law. He sounds cruel and bloodthirsty! It doesn’t sound to me as if the people had much input into this
contract, by the way. It sounds pretty “take it or leave it” to me.
MS: Why look at the contract
so negatively? The first option, which God obviously prefers, is that the people prove faithful and he is
able to give them the wonderful rewards of peace and prosperity that he has in mind.
SAS: It’s natural for a
reader to dwell on the negative connotations of the covenant when God himself highlights them. He takes a
rhetorical delight in constructing the increasingly harsh repetitions of his vengeance until he reaches the
nadir in which the people eat their own children in a desperate descent into barbarity! Why does God not
emphasize the positive consequences of obeying the covenant and direct the people’s minds towards these
MS: You are foolish and
naïve, my friend! Remember the times! Only a people with a strong and firm ruler could prosper. The people
had to know that God had strict rules and that covenants came with serious conditions attached.
SAS: Serious conditions? I
think the word “draconian” might serve us better here. God’s penchant for punishment and humiliation is all
too evident. When he talks about even Israel’s enemies being shocked at what might befall the people, he
promises a level of “payback” that seems brutal and excessive. He delivers his threats in language that
indicates relish at the prospect of teaching the people a serious lesson.
MS: No, he was simply
pointing out the terrible consequences of disloyalty. Without God’s protection, they could very well cease to
be a people entirely! God was warning them of the world’s dangers, as any good protector should. In the
relationship, they were children, and they had to be shown – as children must be shown – just what lay out
there if they were disobedient.
SAS: Do we think that
children should be in the business of signing contracts that they barely understand? In outlining this
compendium of horrible fates and calling it a contract, does God actually show his love and concern for his
MS: Yes! Is that so hard for
you to understand? The covenant could only go wrong if the people rebelled against God! It all depended on
them in the end.
SAS: Did it? The trouble with
this covenant is that the human subjects were never likely to come up to scratch according to God’s strict
and demanding terms, and his very high expectations. The people were signing up to a treaty that they were
never going to be able to fulfill. A tribe of desert nomads can’t meaningfully enter into a contract with a
supposedly infinite being. Can’t you see the psychology of this? In our own, fervent imaginations, we are
setting ourselves up for failure and a lifetime of punishments. Is this how Jewish guilt got started? We can
never live up to God’s expectations of us and he is going to be very, very cross when he finds
MS: That is a perverse
interpretation of the covenant. There is nothing that suggests that either God or the people had prejudged
what would happen in their relationship. This text is purely about the terms of the relationship and the
SAS: On the surface, yes, but
look at the weaknesses of the contract. Punishments exist for “defiance” but no legal definition of such
defiance is provided. The people are to place themselves at the mercy of an overlord who will do all the
interpreting. What’s in it for them?
MS: Well, this is a type of
vassal treaty, as you said, not a negotiated settlement. As you point out, it is not a contract between
equals. It is a protection treaty. The people understood this, and we understand it today, too.
SAS: So, the people are
actually paying the bully protection money? Is that what it boils down to? You trust this “God” a lot more
than I do.
MS: Well, I have every reason
to do so. We as a people have lasted a long time, and thrived in his care.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
The German Response to the
In 1949 Konrad Adenauer, the first Chanceller of the Federal Republic of Germany,
recognized his country’s need to atone for Nazi atrocities. In terms of the Luxembourg Reparations Agreement
of 1952, West Germany paid 3 billion DM to Israel and 4.5 million DM to a range of Jewish organizations.
Direct compensation was later paid to individual victims of Nazi atrocities.
West Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1965, and the relationship
has grown significantly. State visits between the countries take place regularly, and both countries’
cabinets met in Israel in early 2008 to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary.
Agreements have been signed relating to the environment, education and defense, and
Chancellor Angela Merkel has affirmed Germany’s support of the Jewish state. She spoke of Germany’s
“Holocaust shame” in the Knesset.
Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe. There is considerable
intellectual collaboration, especially in the sciences. Inter-cultural contact is also
Since the 1990s Germany has been a strong proponent of a two-state solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Germany has also lobbied in recent times for an increased EU role in the Middle
Three contemporary German responses to the Holocaust have been identified by Rolf
Schutte, Germany’s consul general to the United States. It is a topic, Schutte says, that divides and binds
Jews and Germans like no other peoples. He notes that the Jewish community in Germany is the fastest-growing
Jewish community in the world and is flourishing.
Among non-Jewish Germans in the first decade of the 21st century,
apparently, 5% of the population can be described as radically right-wing or neo-Nazi. This hardcore group
denies the accuracy of Holocaust history and produces revisionist versions of events to suit its ideological
agenda. Some people of this ilk belittle the Holocaust and express indifference to the mass murder of
The majority of Germans, some 75%, feel a degree of shame regarding the Holocaust but
no personal guilt.
Then there is the remaining 20% of non-Jewish Germans who feel a sense of personal
guilt for the Holocaust. This does not imply that their families were connected to Holocaust events – much of
this guilt is linked to personal sensitivities and in some cases a strong sense of moral
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
BEN: Look, I’m sorry for
saying this out loud, but I don’t think I can ever forgive the Germans for the Holocaust. What makes them
think that paying compensation in monetary ways can ever redeem them?
DAD: You need to be careful
here, Ben. Who are the Germans? Very few of the present population of Germany were active participating
adults in the time of the Holocaust. Are you going to hold the actions of their parents and grandparents
against them? For how long?
BEN: Well, what’s our option?
To forget? To forgive? I don’t think we should ever forgive the perpetrators or forget what was done to our
CHAYA: So, are you going to
take this line on all holocausts? Rwandan genocide? The Khmer Rouge? Chechnya? How far back are you prepared
to go? Genghis Khan?
BEN: Well, I don’t think we
should forgive or forget. A holocaust is an inconceivably terrible thing. And all over the world, there are
Holocaust deniers – some deny the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, other
eastern and central Europeans. And if we allow these memories to fade, soon they will simply be stories, and
no-one will remember the pain.
DAD: Well, there are
holocaust memorials that have been built, like Yad Vashem, which people visit to be reminded of the horror
and commemorate the deaths of their people. Maybe that’s what we have to do, remember and move
CHAYA: We also have to be
rational and consistent. It’s not only Jews who have been kept in camps and allowed to die, or be massacred.
We see it today still. Humans have learnt nothing. Sadly, I think the fact that the generations of Germans
since World War II have taken collective responsibility for the holocaust of Jewish people has highlighted
the slaughter of Jews, and the world at large has focused on this, and not on the mass murder of other people
in other places.
BEN: Well, I am a Jewish
person, and my first priority is other Jews. It is my responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust of
Jews alive. I don’t forgive the World who allowed it and I will never forget.
DAD: Humans tend to have most
empathy with the group they feel part of. Unfortunately, one of the primary problems with group
identification is that we allow ourselves to dehumanize others, and not think of them as human beings like
ourselves. We have seen this as one of the root causes of anti-Semitism. As Jews, we need to be very aware
that we too could dehumanize others. It’s much easier to perpetrate major injustices on others if we do not
think of them as fully human. I think this is one of the major lessons of this and other
CHAYA: So, you’re saying that
demonizing the people of Germany, for instance, is likely to continue this constant process of fearing,
hating and despising what is other than ourselves?
DAD: I think I am saying
that. And I think that as Jewish people, we should be very conscious of our propensity to set ourselves
apart, because we might be dehumanizing others. And once we see others as less than human, we are in
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
rejoice at your enemy’s fall – but don’t rush to pick him up either.
who is full does not believe one who is hungry.
God and a neighbor nothing is hidden.
· The diamond
glitters, but in the final analysis it is a rock.
· Why do
Jewish divorces cost so much? They’re worth it. (Henny Youngman)
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Rebecca Gratz (1781 –
This celebrated philanthropist was descended from a long line of rabbis. She was the
first female Jewish college student in the USA, and at the age of 20 she established the Female Association
for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. This organization helped those in strife after
the Revolutionary War. In 1815 she helped found the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum and later became its
secretary, a position she held for 40 years. She was also a founding member of the Female Hebrew Benevolent
Society. She was also instrumental in founding the Fuel Society and the Sewing Society. Beautiful and
engaging, she is reputed to be the inspiration for the character Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902
A Polish-born American author,
Singer was the son of an Hasidic rabbi. He started as a journalist in Warsaw, and was an emerging literary
talent by the time he immigrated to the USA in 1935, settling in New York. He became famous in America. There he
still wrote and published in Yiddish, editing his works for American audiences. He published 18 novels and a
large number of essays and articles, but he is most famous for his short stories. Most of his stories represent
the world of East European Jewry. His most famous works include Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, The Magician of
Lublin, The Golem, The Family Moskat and The Estate. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in