The Covenant of Sinai: A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation
Summarized by Daniel Herman
Translated by David Strauss
This week's parashot, Behar-Bechukotai, mark the end of the covenant between God and Israel that was entered into at Sinai, a covenant that began with the giving of the Torah, continued with the specifics of its laws and various new enactments, and ends now with blessings and curses. The objective of this covenant and of the details that accompany it is to pave a path that will lead to Israel's becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation on both the personal and the national level – both with respect to the connection between God and His people and with respect to Israel's mission as a light to the nations.
This idea is summarized in the following verse:
These are the statutes and the judgments and the Torot that the Lord made between Him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moshe. (Vayikra 26:46)
There are three elements mentioned in this verse, and together they express three of the foundations for the building of that nation: the statutes, the judgments, and the Torot. The statutes, apart from the particulars that are perceived as incomprehensible, are found primarily in the context of the festivals over the course of the year. These festivals are stations in time that shape the Jewish calendar around an axis of connection to God; on these days, the people of Israel are asked to come to the sanctuary, offer sacrifices, and draw nearer to their Father in heaven.
The judgments consist of the monetary laws and the rules for governing a Jewish state and society, the importance of which is reflected in the proximity of Parashat Mishpatim to the giving of the Torah. However, our parasha spells out two laws that indicate the fundamental difference between these social laws and the general laws – the laws of overcharging and of usury. At first glance, these two laws are difficult to understand. Overcharging involves selling an item for more than the market price. If the buyer is aware of what is happening but nevertheless decides to buy the item, why is the transaction forbidden? Similarly, regarding the taking of interest, if one is permitted to charge a fee for the use of his property, why can't he do the same for the use of his money? From here we learn an important point not only with respect to these laws, but with respect to the entire system of laws presented in the Torah. Unlike other political systems, the Torah system is not concerned with regulating the relations between the individual members of society. The purpose of this system of commandments is to promote moral principles and their assimilation into the infrastructure of society, out of a desire to fashion it as a holy people to God.
The Torot are the laws governing the sacrifices. Here too – similar to the statutes and the festivals – the Torah creates a path by way of which man can call upon his God, present Him with requests, and repent for his sins.
Everything that we have said thus far relates to the national-social level. The words of Rashi at the beginning of the parasha, however, teach us that there are provisions here for the life of the individual as well:
"If you walk in My ordinances" – One might think that this denotes the fulfillment of the commandments. But when Scripture states, "and you shall keep My commandments and do them," it is plain that in this passage there is already mentioned the fulfillment of the commands. How then must I explain, "If you walk in My commandments"? As an admonition that you should toil in the study of Torah. (Rashi, Vayikra 26:3)
Many darshanim stop at this point of Rashi's conclusion and dwell on the enormous need for laborious Torah study. What they say is, of course, correct, and toiling in Torah is indeed a central and critical value. It seems, however, that the continuation of Rashi's comment is no less important:
"And take heed of My commandments" – Study the Torah laboriously with the intention to take heed and to fulfill its teachings, as it is stated: "And you shall learn them and take heed to do them" (Devarim 5:1). (Rashi, ibid.)
According to Rashi, the Torah calls upon us to deepen our spiritual world by way of devotion to Torah study; it asks us to strengthen our inner faculties and sharpen our thinking. All this should be done not out of a desire for intellectual amusement or challenge, but out of a commitment to the world of action. A deep spiritual world that finds expression in a dedicated practical world – this is what the Torah demands of the individual members of God's kingdom of priests.
This might have been seen as a whole and complete system, but the parasha does not end here. At the end of the parasha there are two additional mitzvot: arakhin and hekdesh-related vows. These two mitzvot are not required actions; a Jew can live his entire life in a completely kosher way without ever entering this realm. It seems, however, that here the Torah comes out with a fundamental and exceedingly important call: A person should not content himself with the fulfillment of the required mitzvot, but rather should take the initiative. A similar idea is found in the gemara in Avoda Zara:
What is the meaning of the words: "For your love is better than wine" (Shir Ha-Shirim 1:2)? When R. Dimi came [from Eretz Yisrael], he explained it thus: The Congregation of Israel declared to the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the Universe! The words of Your beloved ones are more pleasant to me than the wine of the Torah! (Avoda Zara 35a)
God gave man the ability to speak, and in this way He distinguished him from all other creatures. God asks His people Israel to sanctify themselves and use that unique faculty to rise up and elevate themselves beyond all commandment, beyond all of nature. To be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation involves not only keeping the commandments, but also sanctifying the world and developing together with it.
[This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Behar-Bechukotai 5777 (2017).]