Artist: Michelle Bentsman, USA
Bechukotai, the last parsha (chapter) of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) includes a specific set of verses known as the Tochachah, translated by some as “rebuke”. Bechukotai’s Tochachah confronts us with the vicious and looming threat of God as the supreme punisher, the unrelenting destroyer. The Tochachah defines the rewards and punishments which shall be received by the children of Israel should they choose ton obey or disobey the commandments laid out for them.
Should the children of Israel choose to stray, a slew of horrific curses will chew them up, spit them far from grace, and demand their enemy swallow their pitiful remains. Their lot is to eat and never be satisfied. Their hunger will render them utterly desperate and bring them to eat the flesh of their sons and daughters. Lost and rejected by God, those who stray will suffer the sight of their cities and holy sites conquered by enemies and torn to pieces as retribution.
The mouth of retribution reveals layers of lethal weaponry, ready to pierce, crush, devour, and destroy. The mouth is the seat of putrefaction, of organisms swarming amid warm, wet darkness. Perhaps the deadliest weapon of all is the tongue, for its speech manifests worlds. When God speaks, a roar of condemnation delivers forth a world of utter despair and desolation.
The mishkan (Tabernacle) has been transformed into a deep, dark gullet, and the only direction those who have strayed can travel is down, deeper into that darkness.
To apprehend the divine creator in such a way is startling, and so we may choose to whisper the words of the Tochachah in order to dampen their blazing terror, for we know that it is rare to escape its decrees entirely unscathed. But if God is truly one, the destruction chronicled in the Tochacha is a necessary foil to creation, and makes way for our transformation. An occasional glimpse into the mouth and its horrific void of terror may wake us from our blind reveries. If we peer into the mouth every so often, perhaps it may clarify and strengthen our resolve, rather than fill us with a ruling fear.
Michelle Bentsman is a trans-disciplinary artist focusing on liminal practices, mortality, and text-as-experience. Her work has been profiled in Haaretz and JewishWeek. She was an Arts Fellow at the Drisha Institute, a researcher for a PBS documentary about death, and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School.