Wagering on the Meaning of Meaning

Photograph of Tamar Marvin
Photograph of Tamar Marvin
Tamar Marvin, PhD

Adjunct Professor
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
American Jewish University

Tamar Marvin, PhDis a scholar of medieval Jewish intellectual history and adjunct professor at American Jewish University and Hebrew Union College-JIR, Los Angeles. She also develops and teaches full-credit online courses for the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. Her research centers on the culture of the medieval Jewish communities of Occitania (Provence) and she is particularly interested in the cultural creativity generated by new systems of meaning – Maimonideanism and Qabbalah–that emerge from a multiplicity of intra- and intercommunal contacts in this crossroads region, situated between Ashkenaz and Sefarad, the Latin West and the Islamicate Mediterranean. 

posted on May 29, 2019

Behukkotai is known for its aspect of tokhehah, admonition. This parashah details the consequences of
pursuing God’s laws (hukkot) and commandments (mitzvot), including the positive but dwelling upon the
negative, in terms of sheer number and detail. The parashah begins, “If you walk in my laws
(im behukkotai telekhu) and keep my commandments (et mitzvotai tishmeru),” and continues with promises
such as, “I shall grant you rains at the correct times…I shall grant peace in your land…and turn towards
you…” This opening section, in which the rewards of observance are explained, ends with the following
pledge: “I shall ever walk in your midst (vehithalakhti betokhekhem)”—that is, just as Jews are to walk in
God’s ways, God promises to walk among the Jewish people, both verbs being derived from the same
root. The parashah now turns to tokhehah, warning Jews that should they fail in this mission, God will—for
starters—“bring upon you panic (behalah),” swiftly followed by decimating disease. (There is one other such
passage of tokhehah in the Torah, which occurs in Parashat Ki Tavo in Devarim and bears similar themes).
Strikingly, the consequences for failing to observe hukkot and mitzvot are not merely physical torments,
though there is no shortage of exile, starvation, and war among them. Repeatedly, the tokhehah mentioned
is reik—void, as in void of meaning. The wayward will find themselves sowing seeds to no end, their
energy exerted for no purpose. It is emptiness with which failure is answered.

In adducing suffering to the path a person takes, Behukkotai elicits one of the core questions with which
humans struggle: why do bad things happen to good people, as they clearly do? And what could this mean?
One response is to trust that there is reason, as suggested by the rabbinic summation of disbelief, “There is
no judgment and there is no Judge” (leit din veleit dayyan), which first appears, interestingly, in a discussion
in Vayikra Rabbah about the inclusion of Kohelet in the Tanakh, despite its potentially heretical ideas. The
midrash singles out this notion—that God is indifferent—as problematic, implying that confidence in God’s
ability to discern and respond to righteousness and malfeasance is at the very heart of being Jewish. And
yet, human capability to comprehend justice in God’s creation is seemingly limited: we are unable to
understand why we, or others, suffer, and thus to understand the meaning of our suffering. We are
confronted by our limitations, wondering whether our suffering is illusory, to be comprehended
or compensated for in some other lifetime; or whether, perhaps, we need to try harder to discern the reasons
we suffer.

Interestingly, Behukkotai evinces both possibilities: that our suffering only appears to be pointless and that
we are responsible to interpret it as meaningful. Its term for both the cause and the consequence of
malfeasance is keri: “If you do not listen to Me and you walk (hithalakhtem, the same verb again) with Me
in keri, I will thus walk (halakhti) with you in keri.” The meaning of keri, which is repeated an emphatic
seven times in the tokhehah section of Behuokkotai and nowhere else in the Torah, is debated among the
text’s interpreters. Rashi suggests two possibilities: the first, drawn from Sifra, connects keri with the root krh,
“to happen, occur by chance,” while the second, drawn from grammarian Menahem ben Saruk,
understands keri to mean restraint. Unexpectedly, Ibn Ezra concurs with Rashi: he, too, suggests
that keri can mean either restraint or randomness, endorsing both without stating his preference. In both of
these senses, keri denotes not a type of behavior, but a type of attitude. This is why Rambam, who did not
write a line commentary on the Torah, brings up keri in the context of repentance. Rambam’s interpretation
of the term appears in Mishneh Torah, in the section about laws of fasting. There he cites Vayikra 26 and
defines keri as meaning a chance occurrence, which obstructs repentance by absolving one of
understanding their actions to require correction. In light of how Rambam, Ibn Ezra, and Rashi
understand keri, we can read Behukkotai as entreating us to act faithfully as if we comprehend the judgment
and the Judge—to borrow the language of literary critic George Steiner, who described this as-if process as
a “wager on the meaning of meaning” that assumes the presence of the Transcendent,
and appraised it essential to any creative act.

Still, this leaves us with little comfort if the meaning of our suffering is elusive. One possible answer lies in
this week’s haftarah, from Yirmiyahu, which reflects the existential themes elicited in the Torah
portion. Yirmiyahu stresses the importance of focusing on the Transcendent, as opposed
to attuning ourselves to worldly success. The imagery used in the haftarah to bring this idea to life is
of plants growing in the desert. Two shrubs have managed to sprout in the wilderness; both thirst for
sustenance. They cannot know when it will come, or if they will survive until it does. One tree’s roots reach
down to an underground wellspring, invisible at the surface, from which it draws nourishment, while the other
wilts. Jeremiah’s shrubs suggest that keri refers to inward attention: the distinction between the shrubs is
internally borne. Avoiding keri does not necessarily give us answers about suffering, but it does save us
from reik, meaninglessness, by providing us with a path to walk. A desert plant can no more anticipate the
coming rains than a person can know how walking in God’s ways will lead them, individually, to flourishing. It
is one’s valuing of the path—sending down roots and being open to the finding meaning in our
circumstances—that sustains us.