Bechukotai: The Dignity of Freedom
The final chapters of Leviticus cast two possible futures for the Jewish people as they settle in the Land of Israel. In one scenario, Israel remains committed to her covenant with God. The results of that commitment are described in the most moving and beautiful evocation of peace and divine intimacy to be found in the Torah (Lev. 26:3-13).
“But…” The first word of verse 14 is one of the most loaded conjunctions in the Torah! “But if you do not obey Me…” the passage begins, and what follows is a harrowing alternative of destruction, blight, devastation, and finally exile from the Promised Land.
For today, let’s mercifully stick with the blessings. The Torah promises that Israel’s commitment to their covenant will lead to prosperity, fertility, security from their foes, peace in the land, and a closeness to God’s abiding presence. The section culminates with this enigmatic verse:
אֲנִ֞י ה’ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מִֽהְיֹ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם עֲבָדִ֑ים וָאֶשְׁבֹּר֙ מֹטֹ֣ת עֻלְּכֶ֔ם וָאוֹלֵ֥ךְ אֶתְכֶ֖ם קֽוֹמְמִיּֽוּת׃
I, Adonai, am your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (Lev. 26:13)
This is an intense vision of freedom. The metaphor that the Torah employs is an animal yoked to a plow. As Rashi explains, the word מֹטֹת that is translated as “bars” refers to the wooden pieces that connect the reins of the yoke to a plowing animal (such as an ox), so that it will hold tight and not slip off. In this image, Israel is the ox, her enemies are the plowman, and God smashes apart the pieces that bind the yoke. Once the yoke is gone, the animal’s head is no longer pulled to the ground and it can walk with its natural gait and height.
Of course, this may not be a metaphor at all. Many slaves—the Africans who were stolen away to America come to mind—were bound by iron shackles that forced them to work hunched over to the ground like animals. Smashing the yoke is the Torah’s visceral expression of God’s liberating power.
The expression “I made you walk erect” is enigmatic. While we know what it literally expresses—the ability to walk unencumbered—the syntax of the phrase קֽוֹמְמִיּֽוּת וָאוֹלֵ֥ךְ אֶתְכֶ֖ם is not obvious. Even though all translations make kommemiyut an adverb—“erect”, “upright”—it is a noun, whose root is connected to “established” or “risen.” It’s also a hapax legomenon, which means this is the only occurrence of this word in the entire Bible. Since we can usually refine the meaning of a word by comparing its other appearances in the text, we have fewer resources for translating this unique term.
Jewish commentator Ovadiah Sforno, who lived in Italy, (1475-1550) helps us here, because he defines kommemiyut as the opposite of the prophet’s image in Isaiah 51:23:
וְשַׂמְתִּ֙יהָ֙ בְּיַד־מוֹגַ֔יִךְ אֲשֶׁר־אָמְר֥וּ לְנַפְשֵׁ֖ךְ שְׁחִ֣י וְנַעֲבֹ֑רָה וַתָּשִׂ֤ימִי כָאָ֙רֶץ֙ גֵּוֵ֔ךְ וְכַח֖וּץ לַעֹבְרִֽים׃
…your tormentors, who have commanded you,
“Get down, that we may walk over you”—
So that you made your back like the ground, like a street for passersby.
Now we have more clarity. “Walking upright” is an expression that conveys dignity, self-respect and the respect of others; it is the opposite, we might say, of “being walked all over” by other people. With liberation comes self-worth and dignity.
This word made its way into Jewish liturgy, especially two well-known texts. In the morning prayers, just before reciting the Shema, we have a prayer known as “Ahava Rabbah.” Towards the end of “Ahava Rabba” we find:
וַהֲבִיאֵנוּ לְשָׁלום מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפות הָאָרֶץ וְתולִיכֵנוּ קומְמִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵנוּ.
Gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth,
and lead us in dignity (“make us walk erect”) to our land.
The latter phrase is almost a direct quote of the last three lines of our verse, adjusted to the first-person plural.The second well-known appearance of this phrase is in Birkat Ha-Mazon, the Blessing after Meals:
הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יִשְׁבֹּר עֻלֵנוּ מֵעַל צַוָּארֵנוּ וְהוּא יוֹלִיכֵנוּ קוֹמְמִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵנוּ.
May the All-Merciful break the yoke of our oppression from our neck
and lead us in dignity (“make us walk erect”) to our land.
Here the prayer is even closer to the verse from Leviticus, including the allusion to “breaking the yoke.” (For a powerful interpretation of the difference between Birkat Ha-Mazon’s language and the Torah’s, see “Source for Further Study,” below.)
In each of these cases, the word kommemiyut is connected with eretz (land). That connection would have been natural for the early Zionists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Jewish national liberation movement, in all its different manifestations, was concerned not only with returning the people to their historic homeland, but also reshaping the Jewish character—either by building up a “new Jew,” or rediscovering something about the Jewish spirit that had been lost during centuries under the rule of others.
Perhaps no Zionist thinker described this reshaping of the Jew as forcefully as A.D. Gordon (1856-1922). Born in Russia and given a strong religious and secular education, Gordon made aliyah in 1904, and lived the final years of his life in Degania, the first Kibbutz in Ottoman-era Palestine. Gordon believed that the collective Jewish soul had been corrupted through the centuries of poverty, oppression, and isolation in the Diaspora. He went even further: He wrote that Jews in the Diaspora had become (not through any fault of their own) “a parasitical people.” He held that by rediscovering and working the Land of Israel, the Jewish soul would be reborn, because a new sense of worth and dignity would be found in the ancient soil.
There is only one way that can lead to our renaissance: the way of manual labor, of mobilizing all our national energies, of absolute and sacrificial devotion to our ideal and our task…. A people can acquire its land only by its own effort, by realizing the potentialities of its body and its soul by unfolding and revealing its inner self… A parasitical people is not a living people. Our people can be brought to life only if each one of us recreates himself through labor and a life close to nature. Should he fall short of achieving this self-rehabilitation, the next generation, or the one thereafter, will complete the process. This is how we can, in time, have good farmers, good laborers, good Jews, and good human beings. (A.D. Gordon, “Some Observations,” 1911)
Gordon stands in a continuum of those who believe that a connection to the earth and national integrity go hand-in-hand; it is a belief that extends back to Leviticus.
Perhaps Gordon and his peers were too harsh in condemning the Jews of the Diaspora when they created the Zionist myth that exile had made generations of Jews kowtowing and meek. These Jews, after all, wove the extraordinary fabric of Judaism for nearly two millennia. Still, the Zionist belief was that Israel would give the Jewish people strength—external strength to rescue their oppressed brothers and sister and fight anti-Semites, and internal strength to renew Jewish expression in extraordinary ways.
This is what all national liberation movements do: they strive to achieve political freedom and they aim to renew the self-respect and dignity of people who have been outcast or demoralized for too long. Thus Martin Luther King, Jr., could proclaim:
We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (“I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963)
In other words: It is not enough just to break the yoke of oppression and to become free; with political freedom needs to come a renewal of purpose, identity, and pride.
Surely, this was one of the great effects of Zionism—historically, and today. With every victory over the decades, Jews around the world found themselves ennobled by the State of Israel. On the day of Israel’s independence, some Yiddish newspapers in America were printed in blue ink—a statement of awareness that a new era in Jewish history was dawning. And surely every Jew who remembers June 1967 can recall the days of fear during the news blackout while the Six-Day War was unfolding… and the exhilaration when Israel’s victory became apparent. That excitement was, in part, an expression of what Israel represented: new Jewish strength and the capability of taking care of ourselves, twenty-two years after the Shoah.
Israel continues to inspire in countless ways. She constantly renews Jewish religion, music, literature, and art in ways that can only happen in a society that has also revived its ancient tongue, Hebrew. We find inspiration in her high-tech innovations that have revolutionized industries and enhanced life around the globe. She has gathered in exiles from around the world and absorbed them into her society. We celebrate her culture; each Israeli Olympic medal, for instance, has been a shared victory of sorts for the Jewish people. And all of us should be stirred by Israel’s first-responder status around the world when humanitarian disasters have unfolded.
I’m inspired by all those things and much more. If there is a cloud to this silver lining, it’s this: I fear that the trauma of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made too many of us forget our pride in Israel’s—and the Jewish people’s—accomplishments. Our love for Israel, warts and all, should include a profound pride in what the Jewish people have accomplished and continue to stand for.
Yet I worry that our pride in “walking upright” in dignity might make us forget that other humiliated peoples need the same. Zionism is the contemporary manifestation of the Torah’s blessing to break the yoke of oppression and to walk upright in dignity. Its fulfillment in our time should make us sensitive to those other people around the world who likewise yearn for freedom—and for respect.
Rabbi Neal Gold is the Director of Content & Programming for ARZA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources for Further Study
In Birkat Ha-Mazon we say: “May the All-Merciful break the yoke of our oppression from our neck and lead us in dignity (‘make us walk erect’) to our land.” The prayer is based on the words of the Torah verse at hand (Lev. 26:13)—but why don’t we pray precisely what the Torah says, “break the bars of our yoke”?
One possible explanation: It is the way of the world that when the work of plowing the fields has come to an end for another year, the plowman will break the bars of the yoke, and the following year when the plowing season arrives again, he will take new bars and hitch them to the yoke. Only if he actually has no intention of plowing again [with this particular animal] will he actually break the yoke itself. And this is the understanding of the verse, “…who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect”: Just the bars, because the yoke itself will be reserved for future exiles yet to come.
However, we pray that G-d will break the yoke itself, and that our redemption will be a complete one, that we will never have the yoke of exile placed upon us again.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ullman (1792-1863), Bistrita, Romania
ואל יהלך בקומה זקופה דאמר מר המהלך בקומה זקופה אפילו ארבע אמות כאילו דוחק רגלי שכינה דכתיב (ישעיהו ו, ג) מלא כל הארץ כבודו:
Our Rabbis taught: Six things are unbecoming for a Torah scholar: …[These six things include:] He should not walk with an “erect [haughty] posture”, for a Master taught: One who walks with an “erect posture,” even if only for a distance of four cubits, is as if he pushed away the Shekhinah herself, as it is written, The whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3).
Talmud, Berachot 43b
The Alter of Slobodka (Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, 1849-1927) would carefully supervise the behavior of his students, namely, that they should carry themselves with good, upright posture, with their heads held high and their bodies poised. This would see to contradict the dictum from the Talmud that says, “Six things are unbecoming for a Torah scholar… He should not walk with an ‘erect posture.’”
The rebbe explained that the Talmud is referring to an inner, spiritual posture—one that [through its arrogance] refuses to feel the presence and providence of the Shekhinah in each step. This haughty point of view says, in effect, “My strength and my abilities are what have made me so noble!”
But the rebbe [in coaching his students to stand straight and tall] was striving for something quite to the contrary: Good posture and generally holding one’s self with purposeful dignity actually will help a person intellectually and spiritually achieve a proper [mindful, modest] state of mind.
Itturei Torah, quoting “the Mussar movement”