This week’s Torah portion is Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34.
What kind of world will exist “at the end of the days,” the period of the Messiah and human redemption? Will the basic structure of the universe, the rhythm of our lives remain exactly the same, with the only major difference being the miracle of a vast multitude recognizing the one God?
Or will the messianic age inaugurate an entirely new world, an indelible change in the nature of the universe, radically different physics and physical existence? I would like to suggest that such not-only-theoretical speculation can be discerned as the preoccupation of the great sages of the Mishna, and their two alternate theological views give rise to two different translations of a word in this Torah reading.
The opening of Beĥukotai sounds remarkably redolent of the messianic dream, the goal of human history. God promises the Israelites that if they but maintain His laws and commandments, their physical needs will be taken care of with good crops and good harvests, and the ever-present danger of wild animals will be removed:
“And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. I will cause evil beasts to cease (v’hishbati) from the land; neither shall the sword go through your land” (Leviticus 26:6).
How are we to understand the concept “cause to cease”? The midrash (Torat Kohanim) records that Rabbi Yehuda defines v’hishbati as God causing these “evil beasts” to disappear from the world, that God will destroy them.
However, Rabbi Shimon interprets the word to mean that God will cause the evil of these beasts to cease: their evil nature will be destroyed, but the beasts themselves will not be destroyed.
The period between Passover and Shavuot is the progressive count of days between the physical and incomplete redemption of the broken matzah and our advancement after 49 days to the spiritual, all-embracing redemption of the Torah we received at Sinai. The cĥametz (leavening) is the symbol of that which swells and expands, of raw emotions and physical instincts; it is made to “cease to exist” by destruction on Passover.
On Shavuot, however, it will be sanctified, transformed into two holy loaves of cĥallah (ĥametz) brought on the altar to God. What was forbidden (evil) seven weeks ago has now been redeemed. If anything, Shavuot is a manifestation of the redemption of evil, of our vision of the possibility of dedicating every aspect of our existence to God.
Rabbi Yehuda insisted on destroying the cĥametz on Passover, obliterating it from the world; Rabbi Shimon understood that it would only be necessary to re-route its function, to look at it in a different way.
Rabbi Yehuda insisted that the evil beasts will be destroyed in the messianic period, a time when all that is evil will be obliterated from the earth; Rabbi Shimon maintained that the fundamental nature of the world will not change, the wild animals will still roam the forests, but their evil will be transformed, their force and vigor will be utilized positively.
Rabbi Yehuda sees the millennium as devoid of Amalek, the nation bent on the destruction of Israel. Our Bible commands us to “destroy the memory of Amalek” (Deuteronomy. 25:19).
Perhaps Rabbi Shimon would indeed see the millennium as being devoid of the memory of the ancient Amalek, for Amalek at that time will repent and convert to Judaism. Does our Talmud (Gittin 57b) not record that the grandchildren of Haman (the Aggagi Amalekite) taught Torah in B’nei B’rak?
I pray for the vision of Rabbi Shimon, and for the sanctification of every aspect of our lives and our natures.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and rosh hayeshivah of Ohr Torah Stone.