By Rabbi Ariel Abel
The opening verses of Bechukotai describe how living in freedom and in peace in the Holy Land requires accordance with the Torah’s laws.
In the Tochacha, the rebuke that follows the promise of blessings, there is a graphic description of the disasters that will befall the people if we reject the Torah, punishments so shocking that it is customary for the koreh (reader) to have this Aliya, and to read it more quietly than the rest of the reading.
The offence warranting punishment is the failure to respect the land itself by not letting it rest during the seventh year of the agricultural cycle. The consequences for this are the loss of crops and starvation, reducing the people to cannibalism.
The worst punishment is exile, from which God will ultimately gather us in, while the land has time to recuperate its abuse. The central importance of the land to our fate is striking.
The second part of this week’s reading deals with donations made to the sanctuary, which later was the temple in Jerusalem.
One could donate either one’s own value, an animal for sacrifice or the value of a non-kosher animal not fit for sacrifice, the value of one’s residence or field. If one donated a field but failed to pay its value over to the sanctuary by the end of the Jubilee year, it became a possession of the priesthood. Any donation made out of what already was subject to priestly or Levite donation was subject to a further 20 percent levy.
The same applied to the donation of a non-kosher animal. Any attempt to swap one animal for another would have the consequence that both animals would now be considered holy property and belong to the priesthood. The two topics – of land and the temple – are the focus of the period between Pesach and Shavuot when we celebrate the transition from the barley to the wheat harvest, one of two times of mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
This period includes Israel Independence Day, which we recently celebrated. The Torah asks us to recognise that the mitzvot requiring loyalty and industry in relation to the land of Israel in particular were commanded at Sinai along with all the other mitzvot we hold dear.
The Midrash comments that by accepting the veracity of these laws as from Sinai, we thereby accept the others as divinely ordained.