Parashat Bechukotai, the final parasha of the Book of VaYikra, declares its message in forceful terms. In language both graphic as well as gripping, the Torah spells out the rewards of compliance with its commandments, as well as the dire threats of destruction for abrogation of the Covenant.
"If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments to fulfill them, then I will provide your rains in their season; the earth will bring forth its produce and the trees of the field will yield their fruit. Your threshing season will last until grape harvest, and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you shall eat your bread to satiation and shall dwell in security in your land. I will grant peace in the land and you shall lie down to sleep without fear, and I will rid the land of dangerous animals and the sword shall not pass through your land. You shall pursue your enemies and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall pursue one hundred of them, and one hundred of you shall pursue ten thousand of them, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. I shall turn towards you and shall make you fertile and numerous, and shall establish My covenant with you. You shall eat the previous year's crops for a long time and will have to eventually clear them out to make room for the new. I will put My sanctuary in your midst and My soul shall not cast you away. I will walk in your midst and I shall be your God, and you shall be My people. I am God your Lord who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt where you were their slaves; I broke the bars of your yoke and caused you to walk upright and proud" (VaYikra 26: 3-13).
The Broad Sweep
Carefully surveying the Torah's list of blessings, we notice that they are comprehensive. All of the basic existential needs and desires of the individual as well as of the nation find expression here. Sufficient and timely rains, so necessary for agriculture in the Land of Israel, will cause the earth to bring forth its bounty in exceptional measure. So plentiful will the harvests be, that their seasons will begin to overlap, and bread shall be available in abundance.
Nor will the enjoyment of all of that goodness be tainted by intimations of anxiety, for both external enemies as well as noxious beasts will be held at bay and kept distant. A small fighting force of Jews will put much larger enemy armies to flight, and the secure nation will enjoy God's favor so that it grows and prospers. God will reaffirm His covenant with the Jews and they will enjoy His favor. God will cause His sanctuary, a physical space providing the opportunity of experiencing His presence, to be among them, and He and His people Israel will be reconciled.
Viewed from another angle, these blessings address the basic and well-known bifurcation of the physical and spiritual sides of the human condition. Material plentitude will be augmented by a cohesive and intimate relationship with God, and the perceived estrangement of body from soul will finally be overcome. Taken as a whole, one might say that the images of abundance, health, peace and tender attachment to God portrayed by this passage, suggest an ideal state or utopian vision that Jewish tradition often describes as the 'Messianic Age.'
The Vision of Yeshayahu/Isaiah
This period, variously but vividly described in the Prophetic works as an age of universal harmony that will spell an end to the scourge of sickness, the wantonness of war, and the ignominy of injustice, is celebrated in a well-known passage from the Book of Yeshayahu/Isaiah Chapter 11. "A shoot shall spring forth from the trunk of Yishai and a sprout from his roots. The spirit of God shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of God...He shall judge the poor with righteousness...and smite the wicked with the words of his mouth. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard with the kid, a calf, young lion and fatling shall be together, and a small child shall guide them. The cow and bear shall graze together, and together they shall cause their young to lay down, and the lion shall consume straw like an ox. An infant shall play over the lair of the python and shall stretch forth his hand to the adder's den. There shall be neither evil nor destruction on all of My holy mountain, for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea..." (11:1-9).
In this portrayal, the Messianic figure who is a divinely inspired (but unequivocally human) descendent of David, will uphold the rule of law and undermine corruption. A fantastic change will take place in the natural order, as carnivores will mend their brutal ways and dwell in harmony with their placid former prey. A small child will oversee the transformation, for this spirit of universal peace will ameliorate and finally rectify the cursed serpent's crime of alienating man from the earth that bore him.
The Interpretation of the Rambam
The Rambam (12th century, Egypt) is quick to point out the metaphoric meaning of the passage, in his description of the Messianic Age recorded in his Laws of Kings, Chapter 12:1. "Do not think that during the Messianic Era any of the laws of nature will be suspended or that new changes will be introduced into the order of Creation. Rather the world will continue to operate according to these natural laws. That which Yeshayahu describes as 'the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard with the kid' is in fact a parable and allegory. The meaning of the matter is that the people of Israel will dwell in security with those wicked nations who are compared to the wolf and to the leopard... as all of them will finally acknowledge the true doctrines and will cease from engaging in robbery and corruption. Rather, these nations will consume only permitted things, at peace with Israel, as it states 'the lion shall eat straw like the ox.' All similar passages concerning the Messiah are to be understood as allegories, and during that age it will become apparent to all what the meaning of the allegory was and to what matter it alluded."
A well-established Talmudic tradition (Sanhedrin 91b) asserts that the only substantial distinction between the present time and the Messianic Era is the cessation of the people of Israel's oppressed state and their securing of political sovereignty. Rambam, basing himself upon this source and no doubt also relying upon the same rational considerations that underlie all of his thinking, is quite content to reinterpret seemingly fantastic prophetic descriptions of that time as in fact constituting parables and similes. The meat-eating lion will not really change its diet of hapless herbivores, for the laws of nature by which the world operates will never be suspended. The Messianic Era is not a time of marvelous miracles and remarkable wonders. Rather, it is a period of a changed human condition exemplified by the vindication of Israel's faith and her long-awaited liberation from the clutches of oppressive and brutal regimes that sought to destroy her.
The Approach of the Ramban
The Ramban (13th century, Spain), in contrast, understands the matter quite differently, as he explains in his commentary to our Parasha. His starting point is a curious verse, concerning which the Sages disagree in the Midrash: "'I will grant peace in the land and you shall lie down to sleep without fear, and I will rid the land of dangerous animals and the sword shall not pass through your land' (VaYikra 26:6). What does the Torah mean when it says that the land will be rid of dangerous animals? – Rabbi Yehuda explained that God will cause the dangerous beasts to be removed from the world. Rabbi Nehemiah explained that God will cause them to cease from harming others." The Ramban elucidates the matter by explaining that Rabbi Yehuda understands the biblical verse according to its straightforward reading. Since the land will be full of plenty and the cities full of human habitation, wild animals will not enter the settled areas and they will thus cease to present an immediate danger to people. According to Rabbi Nehemiah, however, the meaning of the verse is not that God will distance these creatures from our cities, but rather that He will cause the 'evil of the beasts' to be removed from the land. In other words, according to Rabbi Nehemiah, a fundamental transformation of the natural order will take place, and indeed the words of Yeshayahu will be fulfilled according to their plain meaning – the wolf will lie down with the lamb in tranquil concord.
Ramban continues: "the view of Rabbi Nehemiah is the correct one, for when the Jewish people fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah, the Land of Israel will come to resemble the state of the world at its pristine beginning, before the transgression of the first humans. At that time, beasts and creeping things did not harm or kill people... as the verse states 'an infant shall play over the lair of the python' etc., for the carnivorous nature of the dangerous beasts only came about as a result of the transgression of man who was condemned to become their prey... At the time of creation the verses state concerning the wild animals that their food was to be the grass of the field - "as for the beasts of the land and the birds of the heavens and all the animals that creep upon the earth, I give them all manner of vegetation to consume" (Bereishit 1:29-30), for that was to be their eternal nature. They only become carnivorous because of transgression, as I have explained... Therefore, when a time of completeness is reached, the brutal temper of the animals of the Land of Israel will cease, for they shall all revert back to their initial nature that was placed in them at the time of their creation. Thus, during the days of the Redeemer who will be a descendent of Yishai, concerning which Yeshayahu spoke, peace will return to the world and brutality will cease...."
The Garden of Eden and the Land of Israel
With his explanation, the Ramban fashions a fascinating construct according to which a direct parallel exists between the Paradisiacal Garden on the one hand, and the Land of Israel in the Messianic era on the other. In the initial ideal state, the natural order was in perfect balance. Humanity dwelt in harmony with other creatures, and they in turn lived peaceably among themselves. God's overarching presence was felt in that Garden, for man and woman lived their lives in constant experience of His closeness. Strife and struggle, brutality and bloodshed, anger and anguish were unknown. The destructive alienation of man from his God, his world, and himself had not happened, for human ears were attuned to the Divine call and the human heart was sensitive to its message.
The world, however, was early on transmogrified into a place of cruelty and death. All creatures began to struggle mightily for their survival, and a nature red in tooth and claw took the place of the ideal state. The first human beings were exiled from the Garden of Eden and sent into a world turned hostile and savage. Condemned to a life of spiritual estrangement, their descendents soon introduced the innovations of injustice and of murder. Nevertheless, a faded memory of that Garden remained and humanity has ever since attempted to find its way back.
Significantly, it was the transgression of Adam and Eve that upset the ideal equilibrium, for by abrogating God's command they introduced a new and dangerous element into Creation – human hubris that refuses to accede to a Transcendent Morality. Most striking, the Ramban posits that the effects of that momentous decision were not exclusively or perhaps not even primarily consequential for only humanity, but rather for the entire order of Creation. The harmony and peace that had initially characterized the animal kingdom dissipated, to be replaced by an 'unnatural' order of predator and prey. The great and fearsome beasts that had been created as gentle consumers of vegetation became carnivorous killers. But, most significant of all, the formerly intimate relationship between God and man became distant and removed.
Returning to Eden
What then is the way back? The Ramban explains that when the Jewish people return to the Torah, to a vision of the world predicated upon sensitivity for others and reverence for God, when we are ready to surrender the will to dominate for the desire to serve, then in fact the Messianic Era will dawn. This time will be one of peace, plenty, tranquility and spiritual fulfillment. Nature will cease being what is in actuality an artificial construct of barbarity and outrage, for the Land of Israel will again embody the ideal state of Eden. Though this transformation might strike us as miraculous and remarkable, the Ramban suggests that it is in fact nothing more than a return to the untarnished, pristine world that God initially fashioned.
Our perceptions of the world of nature tend to be shaped by our urban experience. Living in comfortable cities and spacious, safe homes, our primary contact with 'wild beasts' is through the relatively innocuous experience of the neighborhood zoo. Colored by a romantic vision of the wilderness, we tend to forget that in reality, the world of nature is not the pleasant chirping of morning starlings outside of our window, but rather the relentless struggle for survival that necessarily spells life for some creatures and a cruel, sudden, and painful end for others. If we honestly look at nature for what it truly is, we are startled by its coarseness. But, explains the Ramban, what is most striking about the natural world around us is that it is nothing more than a REFLECTION of ourselves! What the Ramban suggests is that the state of the world is (not surprisingly) a direct function of our moral and ethical conduct. If we as humans champion an existence of avarice, injustice, and barbarity, and routinely condone acts of individual and collective oppression, then we should not be surprised that a lion can tear an antelope to shreds or that a house cat can merrily sink its sharp teeth and claws into the vulnerable flesh of an injured bird. Conversely, if the day finally dawns on which nations can live at peace with each other, if the sun finally rises on cities filled with fellowship and righteousness, if we as individuals can repair the tattered state of our relationship with others and with God, then, avers the Ramban, the vision of 'the lion consuming straw like an ox and an infant playing over the lair of the python' is indeed equally plausible.