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Torah Commentary
B'chukotai (May 17, 2014)

Benjamin J. Zeidman, Assistant Rabbi

WE HAVE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE that shows us what a treaty looked like between an ancient ruler and his subjects or lesser lords. These so-called “vassal treaties” arranged for the sovereign’s protection so long as the servant did what he was supposed to do and properly served his ruler. Some of the treaties of Esarhaddon, an Assyrian king nearly 2,700 years ago, are known and have been published. These treaties stipulated the blessings that would come to the vassal should he serve well. If he didn’t, then not only would Esarhaddon’s wrath come down upon him but so would the wrath of the various Near Eastern Gods. The vassal took this oath upon himself seeing the benefits of serving Esarhaddon and understanding that he must not go against this agreement.

Our parashah this week closely resembles such a treaty. With God as sovereign and our ancestors as vassals, we are guaranteed God’s blessings if we do what is right. If we do not, then curse upon curse upon curse will befall us. And the text gets pretty nasty. It’s pretty bad. So why would the ancient Israelites accept this treaty, this covenant? Because the blessings outweighed the curses. Because the opportunities and benefits were great. And because they intended to abide by it!

A covenant is a holy treaty with God. The terms and conditions are written in our Torah, but we know they are based on ideas and ideals that are ancient and human. The similarities between Esarhaddon’s vassal treaties and the blessings and curses of our parashah this week are disturbing and academically exciting. But whether we understand them to be literal or figurative, we know that our job is to try to honor God in all that we do.

In A Living Covenant, David Hartman points out that, “The creation of a being capable of saying ‘no’ to divine commands is the supreme expression of divine love.” In taking part in the covenant, we reaffirm our ability to enter into an agreement of mutual respect with the Eternal. This is no irrelevant, ancient treaty with a bygone flesh-and-blood king. We have the ability to lift ourselves to the heights of holiness, but we must choose to do so.

What is the ultimate benefit of choosing to say yes to our responsibilities as part of the covenant? “I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Leviticus 26:11-12) What could possibly be a better reward than that?

1 Hartman, A Living Covenant, 24.

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