Parshat Behar – Bechukotai
(Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14)
May 19, 2001
The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught with regard to the words of the Torah: “Is not My word … like a hammer that shatters a rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29). As a hammer splits a rock into many pieces, so will verses of the Bible yield many meanings. (Adapted from Sanhedrin 34a)
The Haftarah, like the Parasha, distinguishes between the appropriate path for people to follow and the path which will lead them astray from God. A person who trusts in man, not God, is described as “a desert plant” that barely maintains its existence (17:6), while the person who trusts in God is described as “a tree planted by the waters, sending forth its roots by a stream; It does not sense the coming of heat, Its leaves are ever fresh; It has no care in the year of draught, It does not cease to bear fruit.” (17:8)
The desert plant has few roots and is unlikely to flourish, while a tree with a strong root system is able to maintain its stability in a storm, to find water and nourishment when there is little rain and to bear fruit under almost all conditions. Jeremiah uses these metaphors to illustrate the advantages of faith in God and the drawbacks of turning away from God, since this was one of the major religious conflict facing his generation.
We have now explained what is called the “pshat” or simple meaning of the text. This term describes the meaning of a text as the author intended the audience to understand it. In the following teaching from Mishnah Avot 3:22, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, a sage from the period of the Mishnah, uses these verses to examine the relationship between wisdom and deeds. This message is very different from that of Jeremiah. We call his use of these verses “midrash” because it veers from the “plain meaning” of its original author. This “creative use” of these verses allowed him to answer a very relevant religious question for his generation as well as ours. He learns from these verses that a person’s deeds are the “roots” that nourish the development of wisdom.
“When one’s wisdom exceeds one’s deeds, to what may he be compared? To a tree with many branches but few roots. A wind blows, uproots it and topples it over as it is written, ‘He shall be like a desert scrub that never thrives but dwells unwatered in the wilderness, in a salty, solitary land’. (17:6) However, when one’s good deeds exceed one’s wisdom, to what may he be compared? To a tree with few branches but with many roots. All the wind in the world may blow against it, yet they cannot move it from its place; as it is written: ‘He shall be like a tree planted by the waters that spreads its roots by the stream. Untouched by the scorching heat, its foliage remains luxurious. It will have no concern in year of draught and will not cease from bearing fruit’ ” (17:8) (translation from Siddur Sim Shalom – for Shabbat and Festivals)
Whether we learn from the message of Jeremiah the prophet or Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah the sage, interpretation allows our tradition to answer questions relevant to each and every generation.