בס"ד ז' סיון התשע"ח

Parashat Behukotay

פרשת בחוקותיי - Parashat Behukotay


A Social Nation, not just Social Justice

Rabbi Asher Sabag


Parashat Behukotay is mainly remembered for the series of blessings and curses it contains, that depend on how well we keep the laws of Hashem – if we observe them well, we enjoy the blessings, but if not, G-d forbid, then we must face the curses.

This is not the only Sedra in the Torah in which blessings and curses are thus recounted. In Sefer Devarim – Deuteronomy – in Parashat Ki Tavo, the Torah similarly describes blessings and curses that shall apply in the event that we adhere to or disregard Hashem's commandments. Nahmanides, in his commentary on this week's Sedra, explains this duality, claiming that the blessings and curses are hints of what is to come upon the People of Israel during the first and second exiles. He says:

ודע והבן כי האלות האלה ירמזו לגלות ראשון...אבל הברית שבמשנה תורה ירמז לגלותנו זה ולגאולה שנגאל ממנו.

And know and understand that these curses hint at the first exile… but the covenant in Mishne Torah [Deuteronomy] hints at this exile and to the redemption of it that we shall be redeemed.

One of the most striking differences between the series of blessings and curses in this week's Sedra and those that appear in Parashat Ki Tavo is the plural form used in this week's Sedra: " אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ" – If you [plural] walk in my statutes – as opposed to the singular form used in Ki Tavo: "וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע" – If you [singular] hearken diligently. What is behind this difference? Last summer Israel witnessed the amazing phenomenon of a social protest – one that shall probably be discussed for generations to come, and the effect of which we can still feel today.

During the protest the main slogan used by the planner was: "העם דורש צדק חברתי" – The nation demands social justice. The protesters' discourse, as well as the slogan itself, implied that this demand was of others, and that the lion share of responsibility for implementing social justice is that of the leadership and government, who were accused of social outrages and were therefore regarded as those required to remedy them.

Unlike this one-dimensional approach, the Torah adopted one that, while not rejecting the idea that the leadership is greatly responsible for implementing the principles of Divine justice, and must serve as a model of decency and integrity, also places much of the responsibility on each and every member of society. Every individual is asked to make a difference, to begin a revolution and transform themselves into agents of social justice and ethics.

According to Nahmanides, as shown above, the curses in Parashat Behukotay hint at the first exile, and were therefore stated in the plural form, which means that general responsibility has been imposed, for the main part, on the leadership. And, indeed, when referring to the time of the first Temple, the Prophets and Hazal (our Rabbis) alike placed most of the responsibility for the moral deterioration and destruction on the leadership, as the Prophet Isaiah said:

שָׂרַיִךְ סוֹרְרִים וְחַבְרֵי גַּנָּבִים כֻּלּוֹ אֹהֵב שֹׁחַד וְרֹדֵף שַׁלְמֹנִים יָתוֹם לֹא יִשְׁפֹּטוּ וְרִיב אַלְמָנָה לֹא יָבוֹא אֲלֵיהֶם

Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves. They all love gifts, and pursue rewards. They do not judge orphans, nor does the cause of the widow come to them.

Kings II says so explicitly:

יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מְנַשֶּׁה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה הַתֹּעֵבוֹת הָאֵלֶּה הֵרַע ...וַיַּחֲטִא גַם אֶת יְהוּדָה בְּגִלּוּלָיו: לָכֵן כֹּה אָמַר ה' אֱלֹקֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִנְנִי מֵבִיא רָעָה עַל יְרוּשָׁלִַם וִיהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר כָּל שֹׁמְעָהּ תִּצַּלְנָה שְׁתֵּי אָזְנָיו

Because Menashe King of Judah has done these abominations, has done wickedly … and has made Judah also sin with his idols, therefore so says Hashem, God of Israel, Behold, I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears shall tingle.

And indeed, at that time in Jewish history, we learn that when our kings were righteous, as were Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and others, the state of the nation was completely different.


The curses that appear in Ki Tavo, however, hint at the second Temple and were stated in the singular form because they impose responsibility for each and every member of the Jewish people at the time. And, indeed, our Rabbis say the main responsibility for the destruction of the second Temple lies with individuals: Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the Sinat Hinam – baseless hatred, the disagreements among Jews and the absence of personal responsibility assumed by all for the Mitzvah of loving your neighbor – all of these led us to second exile. And as we all know, it took the People of Israel seventy years to recover from the first exile, and two thousand to recover from the second. This teaches us that failed leadership is much more easily remedied, and that it is easier to find worthy leaders than it is to transform the entire nation into a more social, moral and just people. The People of Israel cannot be as easily replaced as their leader, and that is why the work required to right the wrong is nothing short of a true, inner social change.


Social justice does not simply mean financial welfare to all, but a change in perception with regard to the way we treat one another, and the responsibility we all share.

The demand for social justice should be made both to others and to ourselves. Do we live our own, personal lives that way? Are we fulfilling the words of the Prophet Isaiah - הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת כִּי תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם - share your bread with the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to your house. When you see the naked, cover him; and do not hide yourself from your own flesh - ?

If we fail to do so we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, and the change we all long for shall be merely superficial. We must make use of this time of awakening to ultimately achieve the change we truly desire, and then we shall also live to see the rest of Isaiah's prophecy:

וְתָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ וְזָרַח בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אוֹרֶךָ...וְעַצְמֹתֶיךָ יַחֲלִיץ וְהָיִיתָ כְּגַן רָוֶה וּכְמוֹצָא מַיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְכַזְּבוּ מֵימָיו: וּבָנוּ מִמְּךָ חָרְבוֹת עוֹלָם מוֹסְדֵי דוֹר וָדוֹר תְּקוֹמֵם

And if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then your light shall shine in the darkness and your bones shall be made fat, and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And the old waste places shall be built from you, and you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.


Rabbi Asher Sabag is a Tzohar rabbi and the community rabbi of Har Moriah in Rishon Lezion, Israel.

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