Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Bechukotai
What Brings Forgiveness?
Do confession and repentance necessarily bring atonement in their wake? In the curses of Vayikra 26, the Torah describes how, after an initial punishment, the people will confess their sins. Surprisingly, however, the text tells us that this will lead not to forgiveness, but to redoubled punishment! How is it that Hashem rejects the nation's repentance?
- While R. Yitzchak Arama suggests that the people's repentance was not sincere, Ibn Ezra asserts that the text does not really mean that Hashem continued to punish them. Do these reinterpretations conform to the simple meaning of the verses? What support can you bring for either position? What marks repentance as sincere or insincere?
- R. Avraham Saba prefers to maintain the literal reading of the text, and he claims that the assumption that repentance must avert punishment is simply wrong. Do you find this claim theologically troubling? Why or why not? For elaboration, see Repentance Rejected.
In trying to determine when the prophecy that the people will confess their sins but nonetheless be further punished was fulfilled, R. Avraham Saba looks to his own time. The Jews of Castille, who had initially lived in exile like royalty, were expelled to Portugal and from there again to surrounding Arab lands. These Jews were righteous people, who had confessed their wrongdoings numerous times, but nevertheless continuously suffered. For more on this reading, see Repentance Rejected.
Can you think of other cases where commentators read the events of their own eras back into Tanakh?
Here are a few additional examples:
- R. Chasdai Crescas understands the Egyptian bondage as being afflictions of love. He thereby attempts to comfort the oppressed of his own time by telling them that their exile, too, stemmed from love, and not, as contemporary Christians claimed, from punishment. See Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage.
- R"A Saba reads Esther's being forcibly taken to the King's palace in light of the forced conversions of Portuguese Jewry in his own time.1 See Esther's Relations with Achashverosh.
- U. Cassuto portrays Yitro as a diplomatic leader coming to visit Moshe so as to recognize the new people which had just emerged from slavery and joined the league of nations. In this reading, he was likely influenced by events of his own day – the establishment of the State of Israel and the hope that it would similarly gain recognition from surrounding countries. See Yitro's Visit – Purpose and Significance.
- Many medieval Spanish exegetes, themselves courtier Jews on good terms with their monarchs, read such relationships back into Megillat Esther, portraying Achashverosh as a positive figure with a favorable view of the Jewish people. See Achashverosh's Shock and Fury.
Justice would seem to dictate that people should never receive a greater punishment than deserved. Yet, Vayikra 26 repeats multiple times that if the nation continues to sin, they will get a seven-fold punishment, apparently seven times more than their crimes warrant.
- To solve this theological problem, several commentators attempt to reread the text, suggesting either that the nation's sin in the verses is more egregious than it appears, justifying the "seven-fold" punishment,2 or that the punishment described is really less harsh than assumed.3 How might either option work with the simple sense of the text? See Manifold Punishment.
- Keli Yekar, in contrast, suggests that sometimes, as punishment for sin, Hashem leaves the world to chance. Under such circumstances one might indeed suffer more than deserved. How might this approach be understanding the phrase "וְאִם תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי... וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם בְּקֶרִי"?
- Are there any circumstances in which it might actually be fair to inflict a harsher punishment than deserved? If doing so will prevent future crimes from taking place, is it justified?
For more, see: Parashat Bechukotai Topics.