"Our treatment of [these] passages will assume that we have much to learn from the Torah, even though we do not accept its authority blindly and without question" (Bamberger in Plaut Revised Edition, 643).
Parashah - B'chukotai
Leviticus concludes with a choice between blessing and curse: if we choose to follow God's moral and religious law we will be blessed with prosperity and peace, and if we do not we will be met with personal and collective tragedy. The final verses return to cases in which a person or property has been consecrated to God, extreme examples of the kind of sacred separateness that has been a central concern for the book of Leviticus.
Aliyah - First aliyah: Leviticus 26:3-5
Whether we experience a life of blessing is up to us.
If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land .
How do we achieve lives full of blessing? Parashat B'chukotai suggests that God bestows our fortune in direct relationship with the tone of our actions. God's blessings are conditional, dependent on our loyalty expressed by our behaving in accord with mitzvot. This is the fundamental expression of brit, a covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people.
If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, [then] … .The blessing of bountiful food is followed by the blessing of a peaceful existence. This theme recurs through Torah, reaching its climax in Deuteronomy. The blessing from Deuteronomy 11:13-21 comprises the second paragraph of the Sh'ma. Our predecessors in the Reform Movement deleted this paragraph from our siddur. Guided by scientific and rational thought, they were uncomfortable with a liturgy that stated we were bound by mitzvot and that God's behavior and ours were directly and inextricably tied to one another. That is not our experience nor is it how we choose to express our identity as Jews.
There are contemporary midrashim that interpret the connection between our actions and God's reactions less literally; "When will the people be able to live securely? When there is enough food for everyone, so that no one is driven to crime or violence for lack of food. Ultimately, then, the question of whether our society will be blessed with peace or cursed with violence depends on how we share our resources" (Etz Hayim, 747-748). Another interpretation is that the blessings and curses of B'chukotai are spoken in the third person plural, perhaps indicating that the responsibility for right conduct and Jewish life are collective, as are the consequences;"When most members of a community follow God's ways, the community as a whole will prosper even if some innocent individuals suffer illness or injustice" (Etz Hayim, 747).
We are neither omnipotent nor impotent in trying to influence the course of events in the world at large or in our own smaller worlds. Illness and accidents, the actions of other people, may be out of our control. Nevertheless, we have changed the course of history in the past and we can do it again by believing and acting as though our individual decisions have cosmic significance.
When tragedy strikes, it is how we respond that defines us. Even in the face of enormous personal tragedy we have the power to recognize the godliness all around us. The Talmud instructs us to say one hundred blessings every day. This implies both that there are at least 100 moments in an average day when we could look for God's imprint on the world and also that we find it difficult to recognize these blessings. If we personally accept responsibility for striving to recognize goodness and walking in God's ways, then collectively we have the capacity for greater well being.
Verses 11-12 hold the key to understanding God's blessing: I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst. We can and should look and listen for God's presence in our personal and professional lives. Rather than attribute all our success to our own abilities and our personal and collective failures to God, we should be open, if not committed to the possibility that God is with us always, blessing us and challenging us to make our lives worthy, if not holy. In this season when we count the days between Passover and Shavuot, we would do well to count our blessings and make time to celebrate them.
Chazak chazak v'nitchazek - Be strong, and we will all be strengthened.
- When something bad happens, is your first instinct to blame someone (yourself, someone else, God) rather than be upset with the unfortunate situation?
- Rewards and punishments can help people learn how to do the right thing. What do you think is the best way to learn how to do the right thing for the right reasons-because it is the right thing to do rather than because you might get a reward or avoid a punishment?
- Explain a situation in which your perception actually changed the way you understood the circumstance and its consequences. When has your perspective been a blessing and when a curse?
For Further Learning
In the curse section of B'chukotai there is a word that is found nowhere else in the Hebrew bible, and so we are forced to deduce its meaning from context. The JPS translation for keri in verses 21, 23, 24, 27, 28, 40, and 41 is "hostile". Rashi and Ibn Ezra consider keri to be related to mikreh, "chance", in the sense that the people follow God's ways only when convenient instead of out of obligation or love. Rabbi Salanter relates the word keri to kor, "cold", in the sense that the people follow God's commands in a calculating manner for benefit, causing God to act coldly without the love that makes forgiveness possible. Sifra notes a connection to karah, "happen", saying that if the people regard God's punishments as merely accidental happenings then God will treat them as of no more than incidental value. Reread the curse section substituting one or more of these alternate translations. How does it change or enhance your understanding of the section?