Rather that start with this week’s parsha, I want to go back to פרשת יתרו (Shavuot is right around the corner). ה׳ introduces the preparation for מעמד הר סיני with the idea of a ברית:
And Moshe later reads “ספר הברית”:
What was this ספר הברית? There are a number of opinions in the ספרא and in the מפרשים, but there is a text cited later on that calls itself a ברית, and fits the model of a “covenant”, a contract with expected duties by both parties and with explicit payments for compliance and penalties for noncompliance:
That obviously isn’t our ספר הברית; that was 40 years later. But clearly there was a similar ברית אשר כרת אתם בחרב. And the parallel to that text in ספר דברים is our parsha:
It’s a list of laws, followed by payments and penalties. It’s not called ספר הברית, but it makes sense.
The problem is, as Chizkuni puts it, אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. It’s here, many parshiot from פרשת יתרו.
The question is not, as Rashi puts it, מה ענין שמטה אצל הר סיני? but מה ענין הר סיני אצל ספר ויקרא?
I think the answer lies in understanding the structure of this ספר הברית. Superficially, there are 7 paragraphs (57 psukim) of laws, of שמיטה, יובל, redeeming land that was sold and redeeming slaves; then 1 paragraph (13 psukim) of ברכות; then 2 paragraphs (33 psukim) of קללות. As has often been noted, תנ״ך seems to emphasize negative reinforcement. But Ibn Ezra (as expanded upon by Naftali Wessely (one of the contributors to Mendelssohn’s Biur)) says that’s wrong:
Wessley’s point is that the קללות section consists of five separate cycles of “if…then”.
The final sequence of קללות is in its own paragraph and is horrific (ואכלתם בשר בניכם and ונתתי את פגריכם על פגרי גלוליכם) and ends in exile and despair (ואתכם אזרה בגוים and ורדף אתם קול עלה נדף ונסו מנסת חרב ונפלו ואין רדף). But Rav Samet makes the point that the previous 4 cycles are not so much curses as removal of the ברכות, leaving Israel at the mercy of random fate. They serve as a warning of what is to come if Israel does not do תשובה.
The end of the final paragraph is a confusing mix of תשובה and what appears to be more punishment:
David Tzvi Hoffman says that this is all part of their וידוי:
אני אלך עמם בקרי means “[They will realize and admit that they did wrong] and that G-d would treat them randomly [as in the first paragraph of the קללות]”, then והבאתי אתם בארץ איביהם, “and G-d exiled them to the land of their enemies”. And או אז יכנע means “They will realize they have a choice: ארץ איביהם or יכנע לבבם הערל”. And then ה׳ will declare that the ברית was never nullified; the fact that the terms of the penalties for noncompliance were fulfilled doesn’t mean the contract is void.
first set of “קללות” are just removing the ברכות; they are warnings. The actual קללות are כז-לט, only 13 psukim and are exactly equal to the ברכות. They end with ואבדתם בגוים; ואכלה אתכם ארץ איביכם…The ברית is simply, “keep these laws and you get to keep the land; violate the laws and you go into exile”.
And those laws are specifically שמיטה, יובל, redeeming land and redeeming slaves, because the message of this ברית is that we and the land belong to ה׳:
The ספר הברית is the contract for the lease to ארץ ישראל. Once בני ישראל accepted it with נעשה ונשמע, ה׳ would go on to give them the rest of the Torah and they could become a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש.
So why record it here, at the end of ספר ויקרא? Because it is the introduction to ספר במדבר. All those laws of משכן and קרבנות really were a distraction that were necessary after חטא העגל; they could have been given in ארץ ישראל. In the narrative, we are now restarting the story and will go triumphantly into the Promised Land.