Parashat B'chukotai comes at the end of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). After a book filled with specific laws, mostly about the sacrificial worship but also about living a holy life, this week's parasha exhorts the Israelites as a nation to keep God's covenant and commandments faithfully. "If you walk by my laws and keep my statues, and do them, I will give your rain at its appropriate time, and the trees of the field will give their fruit..." (26:3-4). If the Israelites reject God's laws and walk away from them, a series of catastrophes will be visited on them.
The ultimate consequence, according to the Torah, of abandoning the commandments is exile. God will no longer protect the people in Eretz Yisrael, and they will be forced to live elsewhere until they are ready to return to God.
The idea that the Jews' possession of the Land of Israel at any given time is conditional is woven throughout the Torah and the prophets. While Eretz Yisrael is always the homeland, the Torah says that the right to live there at the moment always depends on the way the people live and act when they are on the land. God gave the land not for its own sake, and not simply so that the Jews would have a place somewhere as all nations do. The land and the Jews come together so that the Jews can bring God's teachings to their full flowering.
As Jews in and out of Israel today look at the conflict with the Palestinians, this perspective from the Torah must remain in mind. This week, President Obama weighed in with his view on how the Land of Israel should be shared between Israel and the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, outlined their argument for the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state this September (a must read).
In biblical times, when faced with pressure from the outside, Israel's kings tried to view things only strategically, in terms of alliances and forces. The prophets, with the words of the Torah such as this week's, reminded them that it is the character of Jewish society that will determine the outcome. A callous insensitivity to the Palestinians' suffering, their sense of identity and statelessness, cannot be in line with the covenant.
No amount of military strength will prevail if there is not also a human response, a moral response. I don't expect Prime Minister Netanyahu to let down his vigilance about Israel's safety when the Middle East is in turmoil. As a Jewish leader, though, he needs at least to let on that he understands that the Palestinians are stateless and in exile.
The Torah well knew that biblical Israel was surrounded by enemies, and permeated by Canaanite tribes with a profoundly different religion and worldview. But Parashat B'chukotai does not teach: "If you reject my laws, I will send you into exile, unless your enemies are terrible and you had no choice." This year is a precarious time for Israel. Focusing only on how threatening the neighbors are will not, says the Torah, make Israel any safer.