This week, we begin the last chapters of the Book of Leviticus, with the first words of the Torah portion Bekhukotai: "If in My decrees you will walk," suggestive of God's imminent promise to His people. The Torah portion is a fitting, if dramatic, concluding flourish to a book that is basically a crash course on Israelite legal minutiae. It refocuses on the big theological picture.Simply put: Punishments will rain down on the Israelites if they transgress the law, and blessings will rain down if they uphold it.
Until now, the Children of Israel have learned well the quality of God's fury: They witnessed plagues eat away atthe Egyptians and punishment visited upon the worshippers of theGolden Calf. But what is the quality of God's blessing? The first few passages of the Torah portion give us a vague notion of what the Good Life would resemble:
"If you walk in my statutes...then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield its increase and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time: And you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in the land safely. And I will give you peace in the land, and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid...I will walk among you, I will be God unto you and you will be a people unto me. Along with peace and the absence of fear, the Israelites, living in their own land, shall be blessed with sustained abundance--still threshing their grain when the time to harvest returns. They will live a life as if suspended amid God's munificence, amid the greatest fruitfulness His world may yield."
If such a picture strikes you as blissfully Edenic, it also seemed so to the 11th-century commentator known as Rashi, who discerned in these lines a direct reference to the story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. Rashi explains God's final words--"I will walk among you"--as "I will journey among you in the Garden of Eden as one of you, and you will not be alarmed [by My presence]." Rashi's interpretation is perhaps just as puzzling as the verse he seeks to illuminate. What, for instance, does fear have to do with it? And why does Rashi believe that the verse refers to the Garden of Eden when Leviticus makes no mention of it, and God is plainly describing the Israelites as they shall live in the future?When Rashi read of God walking among His people, he was reminded of that time in the Garden of Eden after Adam eats fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. When God asks Adam where he is, he responds: "I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid." With this in mind, Rashi's interpretation suggests that God's promise here, at the end of Leviticus--so many years later--is to restore that which Adam and Eve's sin destroyed: the opportunity to live in close proximity with God without fearing Him. But Rashi doesn't envision this ideal relationship to apply in the Land of Israel, but rather only in a future, ethereal "Garden of Eden"--in "heaven." Rashi, like many rabbinic interpreters before him, effectively conflated images of the Land of Israel and the concept of paradise for two main reasons. For one thing, the description of the original Garden of Eden is neither so detailed nor so Edenic. The second chapter of Genesis mentions, in bare geographic terms, four rivers and (of course) trees. In elaborating upon this mysterious place, the rabbis seized upon lush biblical images of the Land of Israel and fused it with the remoteness of Eden in imagining the eternal resting place for the righteous. At the same time, the prophets, reacting to the breakdown of Israel's sovereignty and subsequent exile of the Jewish people, increasingly wrote about the Land of Israel as a perfect, if unreachable, world from which the Israelites' sins have forever barred them. These two sacred spaces, terrestrial and ethereal, became almost synonymous, leading some rabbis to conjecture that the Garden of Eden was actually in the Land of Israel.Biblical images of Israel, filtered through or amplified by theimagination of its early interpreters, are the inspiration for the images of the Garden of Eden with which we are most familiar, scattered as they are throughout Western literature. Consider, for instance, the poetic musings on paradise by poet Wallace Stevens: Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
The perpetual ripeness of vegetation against "that perfect sky"--a setting that resembles the earth but frozen in a perfected state--recalls God's promise to the Israelites in the passage we read earlier.