The Chronological Imagination: Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:1-46)

There are at least two commentaries by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called, “The Chronological Imagination.” One is a commentary on this week’s portion and can be found online at: The other was published in his collection, Covenant & Conversation (pp. 381-387) which was a commentary on last week’s portion, Behar which was discussed in last week’s Torah study group. They are two distinct but interconnected and complementary essays. That is appropriate since this week’s portion is not only an appendix and final section of Leviticus, but Behar ends with Leviticus 26:1-2 (see last week’s blog), while Behar-Bechukotai begins with the same two verses.

The essay in his collection differentiates four modern revolutions, the British and American, that were both influenced by the Torah, and the French, influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the Russian, influenced by Karl Marx. The latter two are both deductions from a general theory instead of arising from history. The first two developed into a gradual trajectory of civil liberties, human rights, representative government and eventually democracy, symbolized by the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. (Rabbi Yael Splansky last Shabbat denounced cuts in education, health and welfare in Ontario and recalled the Buxton Bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell, given by the “coloured” community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the ‘coloured’ peoples of Raleigh, Ontario, a terminus of the underground railway.) The utopian revolutions in France and Russia led to authoritarianism, terror, bloodshed and repression. The perpetrators dreamt of a utopian heaven and produced hell on earth. 

Sacks then contrasts philosophy with the ‘vision’ at the heart of Tanach. Parashat Behar offers a revolutionary template for a society of justice, freedom and human dignity embodied in the Jubilee year (every fifty years) in which time is set back to zero in terms of property rights and slavery so that everyone gets back ownership of their property even though they may have lost it during the last fifty years. Every slave gets back his freedom. It is a true revolution, a turning back of the clock to zero, a utopian inversion.

The Hebrew vision was one of original freedom where only one individual was served – God. In contrast, other polities (Egypt and Mesopotamia) were based on hierarchies of power. Judaism was built on remembering the bread of affliction. Sacks then segues into contrasting philosophy and Judaism (assumed to be two mutually exclusive realms) with respect to their radically different concepts of time: timeless or eternal time and eternal truths versus Judaism in which ideals are realized within history. The contrasts, which he picks up again in the other essay on the Chronological Imagination, overlap with many of the dichotomies I presented last week. Other than the revision that logic does not belong to the imagination at all, the two columns are:

Fictional Imagination Chronological Imagination
Timeless Realized in & through time
Fictional story – surreal Story or narrative of reality
Revolutions fail Revolutions succeed
Human nature is unchanging Humans take time to change
Principle of non-contradiction Contradictions co-exist
Sub specie aeternitatis Perspectives in space & time
Visual truth Auditory – listening
Mathematical Inexact
Priest Prophet
Law – ought History – is or was
God’s perspective Man’s perspective
Genesis 2-3 Dominion over women (projection of man); man created in image of God Genesis 1: woman equal; humans are creative & walk inthe path of God
Covenantal man – Shabbat Creative man – 6 days
Justice Mercy
Sacred Secular
Spiritual Physical
Jubilee Year 7X7 + 1; start over Shemitta – 7th yr; continuity

Sacks suggests there is a third dimension:

  1. He offers the example of a sphere and a square – something cannot be both. However, when a cylinder where the diameter is equal to the length casts a shadow from the side, it is a square, while from the end, the shadow cast looks like a ball.
  2. Dialogical imagination – two radically different points of view at different times: e.g. the joy of Sarah (Genesis 21) at having a son and the distress of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, banished (Genesis 22); or Rebecca and her son Jacob being blessed while Esau subsequently feels betrayed.
  3. The world is seen from more than one point of view – truth as a dialogue.

In this third dimension, both columns are true even though in the second dimension of the chronological imagination in both history and science, both can only be true if they are sequenced. There is no other way both can be true. Nor is there a way to reconcile the real and ideal. Sacks also adds some mathematical biblical formulas in which Tanach is claimed to have its own mathematical precision:

  1. Creation – 7 days
  2. Good mentioned 7 times
  3. God – 35 times
  4. Earth – 21 time
  5. First verse – 7 words
  6. Second verse – 14 words
  7. Seventh day – 35 words

But, according to Sacks, the precision of a priest is different than that of a scientist since the former entails living out sequentially different and conflicting truths. Sacks’ dualistic and triadic schema appears problematic in at least the following areas:

  1. In the contrast between the mathematics of the priest versus the scientist, they are characterized by precision, but the precision of the priest is sequential, that is, it conforms to the chronological; further, it is not necessarily exact. For example, in Genesis chapter 1, we are presented with a six-day chronology of creation which is confusing in a number of ways:
  2. On the second day, the water below is separated from the water above, but only the water above is named – sky. Then this is followed by a horizontal rather than a vertical separation, earth from seas, but this does not happen on a separate day.
  3. The creation of vegetation takes place on the third day, but there is no sun, for the sun and the moon are not created until the 4th day. Why do the first three days not cover the geological creation while the last three days cover biological creation? The order is weird. It would seem that Day 3 and Day 4 ought to be reversed.
  4. Man is made in God’s image, after God’s likeness. But the only image of God is as a creator rather than the magisterial figure to be obeyed on Shabbat, the day of rest, the day when there is no creativity.
  5. I thought the priest was distinguished from the prophet and belonged to the left column.
  6. The use of the number 7 in various ways is not given any meaning. Why is God 5 x7? Why is earth 3 x 7? Why is the seventh day 5 x 7, the same as God? Some explication of the use of Kabbalist numerology would be helpful; in any case, the numerology is not precise.
  7. The third dimension is the same as the chronological imagination, characterized by the coexistence of two contradictory items, but not at the same time. In the third dimension, the events sequenced one after another are simply contrasts.

Further, if we start with the Creation story of humans in Genesis 1, it comes at the end of a chronological series, indicating a chronological imagination. In Genesis 2, the Garden of Eden story of human creation differs from the Genesis 1 story in the following respects:

  1. Instead of God says and there is, man is created out of the dust of the earth.
  2. The male character is lonely but does not know it; God, however, notices.
  3. Woman is viewed as a projection of a male’s body; male and female are no longer equal but woman is made to serve man.
  4. The stress is no longer on the likeness of humans and God but the difference between the sexes; there is a radical disjunction.
  5. The male is internally divided into his bodily functions and appetites, including especially sexual desire, and his role as a creator who imitates God by classifying and naming objects, thereby bringing them into epistemological existence.
  6. In the male split, his sexual drive is projected as wholly other, as an erect talking snake with its own voice who seduces the woman while the cognitive male is not only ignorant of his loneliness, but takes no responsibility for his embodied existence.

To jump to the bottom line, I suggest the Garden of Eden belongs to the day of rest, to Shabbat, to the dream world. For it is a tale, not of creativity, but of repression, of bodily denial and the imagination ruling over the cognitive world rather than trying to be in synch with it. Sacks has the dualities somewhat confused. As he says at the beginning, it is science that views the objective world from two opposite and incompatible perspectives. Matter and energy are two sides of the same coin, and only one side can be seen at a time. That is, they are seen sequentially. When the stuff of the material world occupies the minimal space possible, it is matter; when it expands into all space, it is energy. Seeing things from opposite perspectives in sequence is intrinsic to the chronological imagination.

Rulers as kings belong to the hierarchical world of priests, of top-down government, of non-dialogical governance that depends on command rather than communication and persuasion. They are not members of a third dimension. The implications for Shabbat are most revealing. Sacks has a separate commentary on Parshat Emor about Shabbat. (

Shabbat is referred to as mo’ed, meaning a fixed date on a calendar, while it is also referred to as mikra kodesh, sacred time when the nation gathers together at the sanctuary. Sacks insists that Shabbat is neither. But it is both. It is proclaimed to be holy by God rather than any human determination. And it does have a fixed date on the calendar, every seventh day, when the Hebrews gathered together in a sanctuary, a sanctuary from reality when men believe they can acquire holiness by acting like God. The paradox is that in engaging in creativity six days of the week, they do act like God. But on the seventh day, when God dictates and commands, and man aspires to be magisterial, humans do not and cannot act like God because God rests on the seventh day and does not act.  That is a real rather than apparent paradox.

Shabbat belongs to the fictional imagination. It is a day of rest rather than creativity, a day when our imaginations are free to roam independently of reality and imagine a perfect world, a command polity and a utopian egalitarian economy of the jubilee year. It is not on Shabbat that humans are co-creators with God, but on the other six days of the week when humans are active and not at rest, not living in a dream world of perfection that is also a nightmare world in which males other their bodies, take no responsibility for the behaviour of their penises and demean women both as projections of themselves and existing only to serve men.

Mo’ed is indeed “meeting” where God and humans confront one another as partners in creation. Mikra kodesh is the call to man by God as a commander-in-chief rather than a partner, as an authoritarian. Shabbat is a holy rendezvous in the sense that Adam’s seduction of Eve via his snake is a holy rather than earthly rendezvous. It is only during the weekdays that the encounter is, or can be, a loving one. In Exodus, the Ten Commandments begin with Zachor, remember, for to live in chronological time one had to recall what preceded the present. To live in a timeless world, as in Deuteronomy that begins with Shamor, meaning to keep guard or protect, is, in contemporary language, to live in a repressed world and to be defensive.

We do not have to be commanded to remember the six days of the week; as chronological time, remembering characterizes those days. We do have to be commanded to remember Shabbat precisely because it is holy and does not belong to chronological time. You have to be commanded to observe Shabbat, to escape from reality and live in the dream world of perfection where priests teach timeless truths as distinct from prophets who extrapolate from the present to speak to our time and give voice to a future, a future that is either made for you and is a matter of fortune and fate, or a future that is made by you. 

In many of the sermons of Sacks, he distinguishes among the three ways God is encountered: creation, revelation, and redemption. But redemption is for Shabbat. It is during the week that we encounter revelation, not as a dictum about how to live, but as a probe about how we might live and then its enactment in creativity. Revelation and creativity are two sides of the same coin. God says and there is. Man says and there is. God speaks during the week and commands on Shabbat. The week days are about possibility; Shabbat is about necessity. On Shabbat we dream of the messiah; on weekdays, we recognize that perfection will never come. Though God is proclaimed as One, though God means One, in real life God remains a duality, justice and mercy.

What is the significance of the above? We need Shabbat to keep the dreams of utopia at bay, to restrict it to one day of the week where it cannot interfere with revelation and creativity. Shabbat is for preserving and raising up, for putting away and honouring that which was once venerable but no longer has a function in chronological history. When that history becomes thee responsibility of humans, God belongs to Shabbat. The lesson: do not adopt utopian visions because they always lead to authoritarianism, terror, bloodshed, the repression of human rights and the inversion of heaven into a hell on earth. Shabbat is needed to protect humans from such an outcome.


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