Parashat B'hukotai

Preserving The Covenant

Incentives to keep the covenant are directed at Israel because of Israel's power, through its behavior, to break the covenant.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

In this parasha, God details the rewards for observing the commandments and the punishments for rejecting them. If Israel is faithful to the covenant, God will grant the people rich harvests and peace in their land. If Israel disregards the covenant, the people will experience famine and disease, and will be overwhelmed by their enemies.

These passages are both understandable and disturbing. When two parties make an agreement, they may outline the incentives for honoring the contract and the penalties for breaching it. Israel and God have made a covenant. Why shouldn't there be incentive clauses or penalties?

On the other hand, the covenant is not a business agreement; it marks the entrance into a deeply committed relationship. Is there any need for incentives, let alone threats? Furthermore, the covenant binds God as well as Israel. If incentives and penalties are appropriate, why are there none directed at God?

The covenant is clearly a reciprocal arrangement, with its core being not particular commandments but relationship. "I will be ever present in your midst; I will be your God" (Leviticus 26:12). The preservation of this relationship is the true incentive for upholding the covenant. The gravest consequence of disobedience would be the severing of the bonds between God and Israel.

God appears to be in control of the covenant. God initiates the covenant and spells out reward and punishment. But God needs Israel as much as Israel needs God. If Israel derives its identity from its relationship with God, so too is God known in relationship to Israel.

Furthermore, however Israel behaves, God promises, "I will not repudiate them or spurn them...annulling My covenant with them: for I am the Lord their God" (26:44). God cannot reject the covenant. The incentive clauses are directed at Israel because only Israel has the power to break the covenant.

Dvora Weisberg

Dvora Weisberg is Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Director of the Beit Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.