Until now, the Children of Israel have learned well the quality of God's fury: They witnessed plagues eat away at the Egyptians and punishment visited upon the worshippers of the Golden 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?
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.
As with many promised blessings in the Bible, God goes on to enumerate threatened punishments that await the Israelites if they stray from God's path. But the threats and promises remain in the realm of the abstract and hypothetical, typical of much of the Book of Leviticus. Only in Bamidbar--the Book of Numbers, which we begin reading next week--do we return to the events of Israel's wandering in the desert, their actual deeds and many, many misdeeds, and to the concrete question as to if in God's decrees they will walk. If, indeed.