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Parashiyot Behar-Behukotai 5783

May 8, 2023
by Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

The second of this week’s parashiyot, Behukotai, lists the various blessings in store for those who observe all of God’s commandments and enumerates the multitude of curses awaiting those who ignore or disobey. While the underlying theology, that our actions are the immediate catalyst for the good and bad we see in the world, may not resonate for some of us, I would like to focus on a different dimension of the correlation between our actions and a divine response.

“And if these things fail to discipline you for Me, and you remain hostile to Me, I too will remain hostile to you…” (Lev. 26:23-24).

God’s response to human hostility (קֶרִי) is divine hostility (קֶרִי). The quoted passage suggests, in rabbinic parlance, מידה כנגד מידה, “a measure for measure” response. The sense of commensurateness between deed, on the one hand, and reward or punishment, on the other, undergirds many approaches to law and ethics. This idea is the basis for lex talionis (eye for an eye) in the Bible and for many parallel axioms cross-culturally. We expect that a reward or punishment will be equal to the prior action. And yet, the Torah immediately proceeds to ostensibly undermine the equality of the principle in this context. Verse 24 continues: “I in turn will smite you sevenfold for your sins.” What seems to begin as a statement that Divine punishment will correspond equally to a crime rapidly transforms into a disproportionate declaration – God’s response will be seven-times the magnitude of the transgression.

At first glance, the continuation of verse 24 removes this passage from the realm of “measure for measure” and perhaps even suggests the opposite, that God’s responses specifically do not adhere to this principle. But, upon closer inspection of the usage of מידה כנגד מידה within the Bible, and especially the literature of the early rabbis, we find that the principle is not used in quite the way we might expect. Within this literature, “measure for measure” typically suggests a correspondence in kind but not in magnitude or intensity.[1] That is to say, a measure for measure response (especially when coming from God) does not mean that the reaction will be exactly proportional to the original action. Rather, the response will be of a similar type, or related to the nature of the original action, but it will typically be more intense or extreme.

On the one hand, such a dramatic and magnified response can be interpreted as childish. But I would like to give God more credit and to explore a deeper possible meaning behind the use of this principle.

The reference to a sevenfold response by God to human sins in Lev. 26:23-24 evokes God’s promise to Cain in Genesis 4:15 – “I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be exacted.” In that context, the threat of sevenfold vengeance takes the form of a mark placed upon Cain for his protection so that everyone knows what lays in store for anyone who kills Cain. But if we take a step back to look at the preceding context, we find something interesting with respect to understanding equivalent punishments that can perhaps inform the reading of מידה כנגד מידה in our parashah.

As we know, Cain killed Abel. We might expect a corresponding punishment to entail God executing Cain. Instead, God points out the collateral damage done to the earth (“Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!”; Gen. 4:10), which is the basis for the punishment of making Cain a wanderer who is unable to till the earth (Gen. 4:11-12). Being exiled and unable to work the land seems to be a much lesser punishment than being executed; yet, Cain’s response is “My punishment is too great to bear!” (Gen. 4:13). I would highlight two dimensions of this exchange. First, the impact of Cain’s behavior on a third party (i.e., the earth) is introduced as a crucial factor in understanding the consequences of his actions. Second, even a non-death penalty punishment is nevertheless too great for Cain to bear. Extrapolating from this, I would suggest that the Genesis narrative teaches us that the ramifications of our actions extend far beyond the immediately obvious harmed party (this narrative is also the basis for the famous dictum that destroying or upholding a single life does this for an entire world; mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) and that the experience of an action may be more extreme for the recipient than one might anticipate.

Translating this back to our investigation of מידה כנגד מידה, I would suggest that the way this principle works as a correspondence of type and not of intensity maps onto these insights. We cannot know the real impact of an action or anticipate the full range of those affected. The act might have a much more extreme impact than the actor intended or experienced, and the magnified response from God or the other party captures the true extent of the impact of the original action. In this way, מידה כנגד מידה reveals the actual impact of an action through the magnified response, rather than simply reflecting back how the original actor perceived the impact of their actions.

What at first appears to be an undercutting of the commensurateness between action and response now emerges as a response that reveals the true impact of the action. What might seem to us to be a minor offense or favor can be much greater in the eyes of the recipient. The response is equal in the eyes of the impacted party rather than the original actor.

The reminder that I take away from Parashat Behukotai this week is that we should not only remember to take into account how our actions impact others, but that in thinking about what is fair and equitable, we must be cognizant of how our actions impacted others as they respond to us.

[1] See Halberstem, Chaya, Law & Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature (Indiana UP: Bloomington & Indianapolis [2010]), 122-134 and Phillips, Elaine, “The Tilted Balance: Early Rabbinic Perceptions of God’s Justice,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 14.2 (2004): 223-240.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation