Parshat Bechukotai June 4 2016
Why does Leviticus end with pledges?
Sometimes it is hard to understand why the Torah is organized the way it is.
This book, which we end this week, starts with rules and regulations for the priest and the sacrificial worship; it moves on to issues of personal purity and permitted foods and personal and national ethical and spiritual standards. It ends with a vision of the future, of what blessing will come from the nation’s commitment to the Torah and what curses will befall the nation if it fails to keep these obligations.
We know, however, that a reading never ends on a note of failure, but on a note of hope, that no matter how far down the people of Israel may fall:
“…45 'But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.' 46These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the LORD established between Himself and the sons of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai.”
That is a great last line. It wraps up the book very well. Close curtain; end of the concert. And then, we have an encore to the concert as it were, or an appendix.
The text picks up with a completely different concept:
1The Lord said to Moses, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, 3 set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel ; 4for a female, set her value at thirty shekels.
It goes on with a variety of items –animals or fields- that people may have offered as the basis of their pledge. Towards the end, there is one very serious reminder:” Kol Cherem asher yecharam”—whatever among the human may have been dedicated—
can not be redeemed. That is a “ cherem”, unlike the “pledge”. That is a condemnation by the court for an actual crime that has been committed, a crime of capital punishment—“ Lo yipadeh”—that may never be bought off. There is no blood money that can wash off murder, as had been done in other societies at the time and is still on the law books in many countries till today.( .e., Iran, Saudi Arabia)( Lev 17:31)
The portion then wraps up with the almost the same words as the penultimate chapter.
“ These are the commandments…”
First, we may complain- why is the value of a woman less than that of a man. Please don’t take offense—the value of a senior citizen drops to small a fraction of either—and this is in a civilization that respects age. Rather, consider that , in an agricultural society, you value labor by the bushels an individual can produce—a woman who is burdened with child-rearing can’t produce as much, and a retiree is not going to do a whole lot of plowing.
What is this vow?
It was common for people to offer themselves as devoted to the gods or to the sanctuaries. This was found throughout all antiquity. There is the famous story of Jepthah, who dedicates the first thing that goes out to greet him- who happens to be his own daughter. It is a piece of Greek tragedy,much like the play Iphegenia at Aulis by Sophocles.It also matches the wild west atmosphere of the period of the Judges. There was, in contrast, although in this same epoch, Hannah who dedicates her son, Samuel, to the Sanctuary, and he grows up to become the leader of all the tribes.
It is clear that the Sanctuary could not actually use all that were offered. Since the Kohen and the Levi had the job of serving the sacrifice at the Sanctuary, there was no need of extra hands. Since they also received their regular share of the tithe and other offerings, there was a limit as to what could actually be accepted. It was quite simple to institute a system of financial compensation for all of these offerings.
This idea of pledging a contribution is so very, very old in Jewish thought. You are probably most familiar with “Shnoder,” a play on words, of “Schnorer” and the pledge one made to earn an Aliyah, The Misheberach that continues, “ she-nadar”, “who has pledged.” Now, you don’t have to be afraid of an aliyah here- we don’t charge. However, before there was such a thing as annual membership dues, this was the Jewish equivalent of passing the plate in church. We don’t use cash on Shabbat, so we use pledges.
I can’t, at this point , hold back from an old joke. Did you hear of the thief who broke into the shul and ran away with the safe on Yom Kippur. He was so excited, he cracked the combination, opened it and found a $million—in pledges!
We must now ask, why would the Torah end the book of Leviticus with a statement that these words, of pledges, are now the summation of the laws of Moses, just as the previous chapter made the same claim to the entire book. It seems incongruous.
I can only draw one conclusion—that the entire Torah stands on our ability to keep our word. The pledge is a word that we must keep.
Our words are so powerful. “The tongue has the power of death and life, and those who love it will eat its fruit.( Proverbs 18:21)”. The Hebrew is very physical in its language: Mavet ve Chayim—death and life- beyad- are in the hand-Lashon—of the tongue. Hand and tongue are used to express the power of language to cause death and give life. As one commentator explained: Those who love it, that is the use of language, will eat the fruits—sweet fruits if the tongue speaks well, and bitter fruits if the tongue speaks evil.( Ralbag)
At the end of every Amidah, three times a day, we conclude Elohal Neztor leshoni me’ra--My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile, and to those who slander me, let me give no heed.” Three times a day, our sages warned us to be careful with our words, and to be ready to ignore the words of others when they are painful.
This is especially true when we make commitments to ourselves as well as to others.
There is a practice among very observant Jews to temper any promise with the words “ Bli neder”- I promise, but this is not a full pledge. In other words, I admit that I may not be able to fulfill this- caveat emptor-you are forewarned. In Israel today, in court, a witness is not charged with swearing to tell the truth.
There is an ancient practice, still carried out in some Jewish circles, of standing in the presence of a rabbinic court on the morning before Rosh Hashanah to be absolved of words uttered rashly. We make promises and pledges and vows that we can not possibly live up to, and this forces us to take it seriously. Of course, best known to all of us is the Kol Nidre declaration on Yom Kippur which reminds us of the words we have uttered foolishly. in excitement or in depression, in the heat of passion or in anger which bind us to obligations which cannot be kept. We seek to free ourselves of the words which should never have left our lips in the first place.
There is a phrase in Psalms, about God who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and declare unto man what is his speech. What is the reason for this progression? The Rabbis ask. Mountains are granite basalt, immovable, the wind is softer, fluid, and speech is an intangible--shouldn't one describe God by going
from the softer to the harder, from weaker to stronger? But, indeed, that is what we have. Hard as mountains may be, the wind nevertheless wears them down over the ages. Words, however, are more powerful, for the wrong word can easily whip up a storm. A word harshly uttered can be a hurricane. The word, unheeded, can cause a typhoon.
With this thought in mind, we now can make sense of the final editing of this book of Vayikra. Whatever God, through Moses, may have said about purity, or permitted foods, or ethical conduct, or building a just society—all that is empty verbiage—until we put our money where our mouth is. We make a pledge—pay up. We make a statement- be true to it. We pledged ourselves at the base of Mount Sinai- we have to put ourselves behind it.
When we open our mouths, may our words always be words of truth, words of sweetness, words that give life. Amen.