“The Odd Conclusion to the Book of Leviticus”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Bechukotai, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Behar-Bechukotai, we find two major themes, the תּוֹכָחָה Tochacha–G-d’s admonition and reproof of the Jewish people, and the laws regarding the redemption of vows and tithes.

The Tochacha, G-d’s fearsome reproof of the Jewish people, found in Leviticus 26, is an intimidating document. While the Torah portion opens on a positive note, promising blessings in the wake of obedience, much of the parasha deals with the wages of Israel’s disobedience. The Torah predicts that the defiant Children of Israel will experience sickness, defeat, famine and wild beasts, and proceeds to describe the horrors of siege, and to vividly convey the calamity of national destruction and exile. It does, however, conclude with the promise that repentance shall bring restoration.

The final chapter of the book of Leviticus, chapter 27, instructs the People of Israel concerning the redemption of vows and tithes. It encourages the people to make voluntary contributions toward the upkeep of the Sanctuary, representing the true expression of devotion to the house of G-d.

The Torah then delineates various vows that may be made on behalf of the Temple. One may donate the value of a person (oneself) to the Sanctuary, or redeem an animal and donate the value of that animal to the Temple. The value of a home, or of land or a firstling animal may also be donated to the Temple. Finally, the Torah provides instruction for the redemption of the various tithes–the first tithe, the second tithe and tithes of the herd.

One may wonder what the Tochacha, G-d’s ominous admonition to the Jewish people, has in common with the redemption of vows and tithes, and why these themes specifically appear together at the end of the book of Leviticus. What could possibly be the connection, and what message is the Torah trying to convey?

The noted young scholar, Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his recent volume, A Synagogue Companion, offers an insightful explanation of the structure of the book of Leviticus and its unusual conclusion.

Raising the question of this seemingly odd conclusion to the book of Leviticus, Rabbi Angel asks why, after the climactic blessings and curses in chapter 26, does the Torah conclude with chapter 27 that focuses on those who wish to dedicate their “value” to the Temple, by contributing money equal to their monetary value on the slave market?

Rabbi Angel insightfully suggests that the final two chapters of the book of Leviticus represent two unique models of Israel’s relationship with G-d. The Tochacha, found in chapter 26, represents the covenantal relationship between G-d and the People of Israel that was forged at Mount Sinai. This covenant reflects the relationship of mutual obligation between the Al-mighty and His people.

The final chapter of Leviticus, chapter 27, however, describes a relationship that is not borne of obligation but rather of love, given voluntarily. This special sense of dedication is underscored by members of the Jewish community who choose to donate their value, or the value of their property, to G-d. In this manner do Jews symbolically dedicate their lives to G-d.

This particularly profound message applies to many aspects of contemporary life as well. In business and in the professional world, commitments are made between employer and employee in order for both to benefit economically and achieve material success. This success allows both parties to earn a living and put bread on their tables. While the work and fiscal relationship between employer and employee and their mutual commitment is significant, the most effective professional commitments are those that are made because both boss and worker truly enjoy making meaningful contributions, not only to the business, but to society and to humankind, as well.

In marriage, both husband and wife take upon themselves the obligation to support one another in truth, and together share a hope to raise a family that will enlighten the world with their good and noble deeds. This relationship of responsibility and accountability is most profoundly enhanced by feelings of mutual love and respect.

These two unique models of Israel’s relationship with G-d that are found in this unusual conclusion to parashat Bechukotai, serve as a most fitting conclusion to the book of Leviticus, a book that is dedicated to bringing sanctity into the world. In order to do so effectively, the Jewish people must first sanctify themselves, then sanctify the nation, all the while serving G-d with a full heart.

There can be no more meaningful or effective relationship than one in which there is a melding of the sense of obligation, together with the feelings of deep love and devotion.

It is this special relationship that serves as a most fitting conclusion to the book of holiness, the book of Leviticus.

May you be blessed.

This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day is observed this Saturday night, May 15th through Sunday night, May 16th. This year marks the 48th anniversary of the reunification of the city.