Parashat B'hukotai

Stubbornness And Chance

The two interpretations of the word keri illustrate different understandings of the reasons for the punishments listed in parashat B'hukotai.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

As the Book of Vayikra, the book of sanctity, draws to a close, the Torah delineates the consequences of obedience and disobedience to Hashem's will. This is the Tochechah, the passage of admonition (chapter 26) that concludes the covenant of Sinai.

If the people embrace Hashem's commands, the land will be blessed with prosperity, security and peace (verses 3-13). Conversely, rejecting Hashem's edicts will result in the curses of disease (verses 16-17), famine (verses 18-20), wild beasts (verses 21-22), war (verses 23-26), destruction and exile (verses 27-39).

The purpose of these warnings is to stir the people to repentance. If the people do not heed the warnings, then the disasters become increasingly more dire.

Unique to this chapter is the word keri, appearing a significant seven times--and nowhere else in Tanach (Scriptures)--at transition points in this passage:

And if you walk with Me keri, and you will not desire to listen to Me, then I will add against you a plague, seven times your sins (26:21).

Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century commentator) notes that keri is first mentioned after the two warnings of disease and famine. Upon the determining third occasion of disregarding Hashem's punishment, there follows the plague of wild beasts: 

And if despite these you will not be chastised towards Me, and you walk with me keri; then I, too, shall walk with you b’keri, and so I will strike you seven times your sins (23-24).

Then follows war:

And if, in spite of this, you will not listen to Me, and if you walk with me b’keri; then I too will walk with you with the fury of keri, and I too will chastise you seven times your sins (27-28).

Then follows destruction and exile.

Eventually, the people will recognize their errors:

And they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, their trespass that they trespassed against Me, and also that they walked with Me b’keri; so will I walk with them b’keri, and I will bring them in the land of their enemies, perhaps then will their uncircumcised heart be subdued, and then will they recompense their iniquity (40-41).

What is keri, which seems to be the root cause of the people's sin and the driving force of Hashem's retribution? Quite a few interpretations have been suggested by the commentaries, but they fall into two categories:

1. keri = refusal

· Rashi quotes the 10th Century grammarian Menachem (ben Yaakov ibn-Saruq), who derives keri from a two-letter root k-r, meaning "prevent, refuse, withhold." Thus, Hashem warns--If you walk with Me in refusal, I will withhold My protection from you.

· Rashi says Menachem's interpretation is close to the translation of Onkelos (2nd century translator of the Bible into Aramaic), who understands keri as "hardening, stubbornness, refusing to approach." This view is supported by Tosafot (Talmudic scholars of 12th-13th centuries) on Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a. Hashem is saying--If you are unyielding to Me, I will respond in kind.

· Saadiah Gaon (882-942) [medieval philosopher and spiritual leader] similarly translates keri as "rebellion."

2. keri = occurrence

· A very different approach to keri is also found in Rashi, who quotes Torat Kohanim (also called Sifra, the Jewish legal midrash on Vayikra). This interpretation derives keri from the root k-r-h, meaning "to occur in an unplanned way."

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.