Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 4 June 2016 / 27 Iyyar 5776

Parshat Bechukotai

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The Curses: Coincidence vs. Divine Providence

“If you consider My decrees loathsome, and if your being rejects My ordinances... I will assign upon you... swelling lesions, and burning fever….” (Leviticus 26:14-15)

“If despite this you do not heed Me, then I shall punish you further... your Land will not give its produce, and the tree of the Land will not give its fruit.” (Leviticus 26:18-20)

“If you behave casually (attributing your punishments to coincidence and happenstance) with Me and refuse to heed Me, then I shall lay a further blow upon you, seven ways, like your sins. I will incite the wildlife of the field against you….” (Leviticus 26:21-22)

“If despite these you will not be chastised toward Me, and you behave casually with Me, then I too will behave toward you with casualness; and I will strike you, even I, seven ways for your sins… then I will send a pestilence among you....” (Leviticus 26:23-25)

“If despite this you will not heed Me, and you behave toward Me with casualness, I will behave toward you with a fury of casualness; I will chastise you, even I, seven ways for your sins….” (Leviticus 26:27-28)

Gd is telling the people that if they relate their punishments to coincidence and unavoidable happenstance He will multiply those punishments enormously. (The phrase “seven ways like your sins” is not to be taken literally. It means that the increase in punishment will be commensurate with the sins of the people.) This is what the Philistines had said when they refused to accept that it was the Hand of G-d that brought the punishments upon them: "We will know that His Hand does not afflict us, but it was all by chance that this befell us." (Samuel I 6:9)

The incitement of wildlife against the people, although it can be understood literally, more likely refers to Nebuchadnetzer, who is referred to as a lion: “Therefore the lion of the forest struck them” (Jeremiah 5:6). The prediction here is that G-d will send Nebuchadnetzer and his army to attack the people and reduce their number. The people will forsake G-d who had caused them to multiply. G-d in turn will send the enemy to reduce their numbers.

The next verse, “If despite these you will not be chastised toward Me”, is a reference to the three already-mentioned punishments: sickness, famine and warfare. These should have been sufficient to convince the people that the punishments were the result of Divine Providence, not coincidence and chance. However, if they continue to do so, G-d answers that He too will behave toward them with coincidence. This is actually two punishments in one. Firstly, He will abandon them to chance and coincidence. Instead of protecting and shielding them against all evil through His special Divine Providence, He will leave them unprotected against the vicissitudes of nature and the surrounding enemies. Secondly, besides leaving them unprotected against all the evils that will naturally befall them, He will intentionally bring upon them additional evils as a result of His own Divine Providence. This is what is meant by the phrase, “...and I will strike you, even I”. The result will be a multiplicity of punishments; again entirely commensurate with their evil behavior.

The warning in verse 27 differs slightly from the previous verse. Here G-d says, “If despite this you will not heed me”, whereas in the previous verse He had said “If despite these you will not be chastised toward Me.” G-d is referring to the fact that this latest punishment, pestilence, was very severe, resulting in terrible food shortages. If the people continue to persist in their belief that this was a natural occurrence and not the result of intentional Divine Providence, then G-d will deal with them with a fury of coincidence and chance, as His anger would be aroused by their stubborn refusal to see that their punishments were measure for measure for their transgressions, not the result of coincidence or happenstance. Even Pharaoh, who didn’t believe in Divine Providence, said when confronted with the plague of hail, “This time I have sinned, G-d is the Righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones.” (Exodus 9:27). He eventually does believe in Divine Providence, as he says later on, “Take even your sheep and even your cattle, and go — and bless me as well.” (Exodus 12:32)

But G-d is telling the Jewish People that they are a stiff-necked nation, blaming all of their misfortune on coincidence. As a result, G-d tells them once again, “I will chastise you, even I…” Once again He tells them that besides what will befall them by happenstance, they will be subjected to G-d’s intentional and specific punishments that go far beyond the natural occurrences that befall the other nations of the world.

This is dramatically illustrated by G-d’s telling them that they will end up eating their own children due to the severity of the famine that G-d will bring upon them; the Land will become desolate; they will be scattered among the nations. All of these predictions of course came true with the destructions of the Temples and the scattering of the Jewish People throughout the world, especially after the destruction of the Second Temple.

In summary, Abarbanel is emphasizing that the inability of the nation to correct its ways was due to its inability to recognize the root cause of the problem: The relationship of G-d to His Chosen People is fundamentally different from his relationship to the rest of the nations of the world. Other nations are subject to the forces of nature and history; sometimes they rise, sometimes they fall. The Children of Israel are directly under G-d’s Divine Providence. This is the source of their reward and this is the source of their punishment. If they don’t recognize this reality they will be subjected to the forces that direct the other nations, and the result is likely to be disastrous. Additionally, G-d will punish them further by turning His Divine Providence against them, causing them harm even in circumstances where the natural order of the world should have protected them, as it would have protected any other nation.

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