A Portion of the Portion: Bechukotai

Leviticus 26:36-38

36As for those remaining (after the destruction of the land) I will bring weakness into their hearts in the land of their enemies.  The sound of a driven leaf will pursue them, and they will flee as before the sword, and they will stumble, though there will be no pursuer.  37They will fall over each other as though before the sword, but there will be no pursuer, and you will not have the power to stand before your enemies.  38And you will be lost among the nations; the land of your enemies will consume you.

These verses come in the midst a long passage detailing the various curses which will befall the people of Israel should they fail to live up to the covenant which God has made with them.  Many will die of various and horrible causes: wild beasts, plague, and the violence of enemy armies will all take their toll, according the rather vivid descriptions in Leviticus 26.  At the end of the all the death, a living remnant will remain, but, according to our verses, the survivors will be stricken with a different sort of curse: the punishment of unbridled fear.  God, as the verse says, will afflict the hearts of Israel with a terrible and uncontrollable shuddering, and they will flee, though not pursed, they will run, though not chased.  In the most startling description, God promises that “the sound of a driven leaf will pursue them.”

But what, we may ask, is that sound?  After all, a leaf on the wind makes no sound at all, and we may wonder what, precisely is the terror that God will visit upon these people.  What is the nature of the fear?  RASHI argues that a leaf, pushed by the wind, rattles against another leaf, similarly twisting in the air, and sound results.  This tiny noise will terrify the people.  RASHI probably gets this idea from an early Midrash on the book of Leviticus.  The story is told of two rabbis who are sitting one day under some trees.  The leaves rattle together and the rabbis run, fearing that they will be killed.  After fleeing the sound, they turn back to realize that they are not, in fact, the objects of deadly pursuit.

The rabbis (being rabbis) realize that they have been fated to fulfill the awful verse, and they weep.  “Woe to us that we have seen the verse a driven leaf will pursue has been fulfilled through us.”   They are distressed to be living in a time, in a generation which is subject the curse of God’s fearfulness.  But the rabbis are unwilling to end the story there.  We may be fated to live in a time of fear and uncertainty, but we are not exactly powerless.  So, in an interesting coda to the story, the rabbis teach the following based on the beginning of verse 37: “And they will stumble over one another:  Do not say “over one another” but rather, “they will stumble over each other’s sins” and we learn from this all of Israel is responsible for each other.”  A midrash about the irrational and unyielding fear of a generation lost in a land not its own becomes a message about the need for people to cling to one another, and to be responsible for one another.  Fear is conquered through the community.  That, it seems, is the remedy.  We are pursued by the sound of a driven leaf, but only when we imagine that we are alone.  That, in the end, may be the true curse.

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