Blessings and Curses – Parashat B'chukotai

B'chukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

Why do bad things happen to good people? I wish that I had a satisfying answer to this fundamental question of the soul. My heart breaks when witnessing innocent people suffering, a dear one who's terminally ill, or a friend struggling economically. We all face such trials at various points in our lives. In the moment, these situations often feel wrong and unjust. As with most life queries, there are questions behind this question: Am I alone in my suffering? Did I do something to warrant this pain? Is there worth to my everyday actions and intentions?

Parashat B'chukotai attempts to explore these topics. We read:

"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. … But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules…and you break My covenant… I will wreak misery upon you-consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it" (Leviticus 26:1-4,14-16).

The Israelites are told that blessings will flow if they live by God's rules. However, if they choose to stray from God's path, consequences will follow. Sometimes, this logic works; mitzvot lead to mitzvot and transgressions often lead to further transgressions. We tend to emphasize this message when explaining basic principles to children. As we grow and learn more, we discover that this logic is often misleading. Terrible things happen in this world, often for no reason. Good deeds go unrewarded. Can we look to this basic wisdom and build something more nuanced that addresses our pain?

It's important to note that in the ancient Near East, it was common for a monarch or overlord to make arrangements with their citizens that were similar to the one outlined in this week's Torah portion. In other words, this wasn't an individual arrangement, but a way to lay out societal expectations. However, the Israelites were unique: their agreement was with God rather than a mortal ruler. They could rely on the Eternal for protection, guidance, and care in the same way other cultures would look to their human leaders. But unlike the surrounding people, the Israelites would need to learn to trust an entity they could not see. Significantly, in both circumstances, unexpected events could happen that required people to rely on their leadership in different ways. We see God as always present, even though we are sometimes unsatisfied with God's presence.

The theology of "blessings and curses" might have been helpful to the Israelites as they regrouped in exile and tried to make sense of their pain. Just as we typically look back to learn from unfortunate events, the Israelites sought to gain collective wisdom from their past to make sure that they did not repeat earlier mistakes. Such a review reminded the Israelites that all actions matter and that there were consequences to their behavior.

Likewise, we ought not become haughty and selfish. We're reminded that even as there's sometimes a clear x + y = z, it's more often the case that we don't know the lasting impact of our choices. Our world is far from perfect, and there is much that is beyond our control. This week, we're reminded to keep asking the big questions and use our tradition to help us find answers. Sometimes, we'll be satisfied; often, we'll be left questioning. But even from this place of frustration, we can dedicate our energies to using the Torah as a guide and view God's presence as a source of comfort.

As we conclude the third book of the Torah, we are empowered just like the ancient Israelites: we're called to recognize that even in despair we're not alone. Our actions matter and the values of our community ensure that we stay strong.

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