(Thoughts on Bechukotai 5778/2018)

Lev. 26:3 – 27:34

Dvar Torah given on Friday evening 5/11/18

This Shabbat we come to the end of the Book of Leviticus, with Torah portion “Bechukotai.”  

Most of the parasha consists of a short list of blessings followed by a long list of curses that God promises as rewards for obeying or as punishments for disobeying God’s mitzvot.

The blessings and curses run the gamut from military victories and defeats, to agricultural surpluses and shortages, to climatic forecasts, to psychological syndromes.

It can be sort of a slog to read through, let alone study and meditate upon. The conditionality of it is I guess what troubles me.  Why doesn’t Torah just assert that God loves us unconditionally, whether we obey or whether we disobey? 

If we translate this to the sphere of human relationships, who cannot but feel that love should be freely given and received, and not conditioned on performance.

This weekend is Mother’s Day Weekend, and as I remember my mother, who died a little less than two years ago, that’s the one message that stays in my heart always, and that I think about every day --- that she loved me unconditionally and that, in the words she often repeated to me – that she was always “in my corner.”

And yet, when I look closer at Parashat Bechukotai, I find that, yes, there is still a way for finding the heart embedded within its stern language.   The clue first appears midway through the long list of curses and threats, at Leviticus 26:21, where we read:

וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי, וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי--וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה, שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם. 

Ve'im-telchu imi keri velo tovu lishmoa li veyasafti aleychem makah sheva kechat'oteychem.

The Jewish Publication Society translation renders this as: “And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.”

Yeah, I know that doesn’t immediately stand out as the sort of touchy-feely sentimentality we may be hoping for.  But consider this:  This Hebrew word “keri” – translated here as “hostile” --- has never up until now appeared in the Torah.  It is repeated several times in the remainder of this chapter – but it never again appears anywhere else in the Bible. 

What is it telling us here?

The notion that “keri” should be translated as “hostile” comes from Onkelos, who translated the Torah from Hebrew to Aramaic back in the 2nd century C.E.  He translated “keri” as “hardness” or “obstinancy”[1] because he thought that the word “keri” was connected to the Hebrew root “koof-resh-resh” meaning “coldness.”[2]  (In modern Hebrew, “kar” (קר) means cold, and a “mekarer”   (מקרר) is a refrigerator.) 

In other words, the Torah is saying here that what God, as it were, is so upset about is not so much our disobedience but rather our coldness. 

And, isn’t that true in our personal relationships as well?

None of us are perfect and we all make mistakes and mess up from time to time in our interactions with one another --  But, what is hardest to forgive – what strains our ties to the breaking point – is when we are cold to one another.

Thinking about this notion reminded me of that song from the rock band “Foreigner” that came out in 1977:

You're as cold as ice
You're willing to sacrifice our love
You never take advice
Someday you'll pay the price, I know

I've seen it before
It happens all the time
Closing the door
You leave the world behind

You're digging for gold
Yet throwing away
A fortune in feelings
But someday you'll pay

You're as cold as ice
You're willing to sacrifice our love

An alternative translation favored by various medieval commentators renders the Hebrew word “keri” as “accident” or “happenstance”.  They understand the word as being derived from the Hebrew root koof-resh-hey, like the Hebrew word “mikreh” (מקרה)   —meaning a coincidence or random occurrence.   

So, as Rashi writes: 

וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי   “Our Rabbis said that the word ‘keri’ means ‘irregularly’, ‘by chance’, something occurring only occasionally so here it means “if you follow the mitzvot only occasionally”[3] 

And in a way that can be even worse, right?  If you care about someone and they only think about you occasionally or when you happen to come to mind, that can conceivably be even more painful than if they were hostile towards you but at least thinking about you.

I’m sure I’ve shared many times that one of my earliest memories of Hebrew School when I was a kid in Brooklyn, was my Hebrew School teacher Rabbi Shapiro telling us that it was okay to be angry with God, but that the big sin would be to ignore God.

And, indeed, doesn’t that apply to our own interpersonal relationships as well.  Better to be angry – and express it – than to shunt our loved ones out of our consciousness altogether.

It’s always, always true that what matters is the heart and the warmth that we put into our relationships and not the scorecard of what we do right and wrong.  This message comes through when we search for it.

Even in those passages of the Torah that seem harshest.

And even in those personal interactions in life that seem most fraught with emotion.

Shabbat shalom.


 (c) Rabbi David Steinberg 2018/5778


[1] וְאִם תְּהָכוּן קֳדָמַי בְּקַשְׁיוּ (retrieved at

[2] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (p.186)

[3] Rashi on Lev. 26:21

Posted on May 13, 2018 .