The book of Leviticus comes to a close with a list of blessings "if you will walk in My statures," and then a list of curses that will befall the people "if you will not listen to Me and you reject My statues." What do these curses mean, and what can they teach us? It sounds like the message is just that we should be obedient -- but that's not what it means.
You might miss the forest for the trees if you don't know what to look for in the midst of all the curses described in Leviticus 26 and the vows in Leviticus 27. But the very answer to that question is embedded in those blessings and curses.
Here's why it's confusing: When the blessings and the curses are each introduced, it sounds like they are what happens if we don't keep all or any of the commandments, and it sounds like all the commandments are equally important. Here are the words that introduce each section:
For the blessings, we read: If you will walk in my statutes (Bechukotai) בחוקותי and watch over my commandments and do them, then I will give your rains in their season and the land will give her produce יבולה and the tree of the field his fruit... and you will dwell securely לבטח in your land... (26:3-5)
And for the curses, we read: And if you will not listen to Me and you will not do all these commandments, and if you will despise my statutes... to not do all my commandments, to break away my covenant, even so will I do this to you... I will set my face against you... (26:14-17)
But the Torah makes clear what the most important commandment is in this same section:
I will desolate the land... then the land will enjoy תרצה her Sabbaths... All the days of her desolation she will rest what she didn't rest in your Sabbaths when you were dwelling on her. (26:34-35)
It's the commandment to give the land rest, through the observance of Shmitah שמיטה (Sabbatical) years, years of release, every seventh year, when the land was not farmed, and through the seventh seven of the Jubilee יובל year, when everyone returns to their ancestral lands, and to an intimate relationship with the land. When God in Leviticus invites us to "walk in My statutes" -- it means walking and living in harmony with the rhythms and needs of the land.
The Torah also makes it clear through the whole list of curses that what is at stake is the relationship between humanity and the land. The curses proceed in stages: if you won't listen then this will happen, and if you still won't listen, then the next thing will happen. Since the fundamental aspect of our relationship with the land is that she feeds us, the curses describe the unraveling of that relationship, marked by how we eat and who eats whom. It's easy to overlook this progression, since this thread gets woven in and out with other threads, but here's what it looks like when we pull it out:
1) you will sow your seed for emptiness, for your enemies will eat it (26:16)
2) you will completely use your strength for emptiness, and your land will not give her produce and the tree of the land will not give his fruit (26:20)
3) I will send out against you the wild animal of the field (who was supposed to share in the Sabbath produce of the Shmitah year) and she will make you childless (26:22)
4) you will be gathered (like a harvest) into your cities... and I will break the staff of bread against you. . . you will eat, and you will not be satisfied (26:26)
5) you will eat the flesh of your sons and your daughter's flesh you will eat (26:29)
6) you will be lost in the nations and the land of your enemies will eat you (26:38)
In summary: your enemies will eat your food, but your land will still produce. Then, your land will stop producing. Then the wild animals, with whom you didn't share your land and food in the Sabbatical year, they will instead eat you. Then you will be gathered like a harvest into the city, instead of your grain, and there you will be unable to satisfy your appetite. Then you will eat your children. Then a strange land will eat you.
Because the Jewish people were in exile for so long, the last curse doesn't seem like the worst one; because we love our children, the fifth curse sounds the worst. But symbolically, if the land eats us, that represents the final step: a complete reversal of the right relationship between the people and the land.
Shmitah is the fundamental observance -- all other commandments, even though they are important for themselves, also have the purpose of creating a society capable of observing Shmitah. And the Torah told us in last week's portion, Behar, exactly what the lesson of Shmitah is:
The land you may not sell permanently לצמיתות (latsmitut), for the land is mine כי לי הארץ, for you are strangers and settlers by/with me כי גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי (ki gerim v'toshavim atem imadi). So in all the land of your tribe-possessions you will give redemption גאולה to the land. (25:23-24)
Redemption, the goal we aspire to for ourselves, is what the land needs from us. If we don't give the land her redemption, the Torah tells us what will happen. And if we do give the land her redemption:
I will set peace in the land... and I will make you fruitful... and I will make myself walk in the midst of you and I will become Elohim for you and you will become my people.(26:6,9,12)
But God will also not sell us latsimtut לצמיתות, permanently:
Those of you who are left... I will bring them into the land of their enemies... their uncircumcised hearts will be bent-to-shape... and I will remember my covenant... and I will remember the land. (26:42)
And this brings us to a famous question that the Talmud asked about the laws of the Shmitah year:
Why are the laws of Shmitah and Jubilee introduced with the words: "YHVH spoke to Moshe in Mount Sinai saying: Speak to Yisrael's children and say unto them (25:1)," and why do they conclude with: "These are the statutes and judgments and which YHVH set between him and between Yisrael's children in Mount Sinai by Moshe's hand" (26:46)? Weren't all the commandments given on Sinai? Why is Shmitah singled out as special?
And the answer, simply, is this: The purpose of Sinai was to create a new kind of relationship between people and the land, to walk the talk, to give the land Shmitah, rest and redemption. Let's learn how to walk again.