Another name for this week's Torah portion is Parashat HaToch'chah — the portion of reproach. It contains a list of curses so terrible that traditionally the Torah reader chants them quickly and in a hushed tone so as not to call attention to them. And no one wants that aliyah! The curses are the punishment for disobedience, and they must have truly struck fear in the hearts of our ancestors.
The curses come just after the promise of blessing — if we follow God's ways. Rain in abundance, good crops, peace, victory, and fertility are all ours if, as the portion begins, ". . . you walk in my statutes and guard my commandments and do them" (Leviticus 26:3). We might mistakenly feel the parashah is about the classic "reward and punishment." But I see it differently. I see it as an apt closing for the Book of Leviticus, which began with a call to relationship — Vayikra — and ends again with a call to relationship. God's message can be interpreted as, "If you are a true partner with Me then our relationship will be healthy, but if you ignore Me, spite Me, hurt Me, and leave Me, how can we possibly go on together?"
Rashi is curious about the first part of our verse, if you walk in my statutes. He says:
One might think that this denotes the fulfilment of the commandments; but when Scripture states "and ye shall keep My commandments and do them," it is plain that the passage already speaks of fulfillment! How, then, must I explain 'Im b'chukotai teileichu'? As an admonition that you should study the Torah laboriously.
To walk in the ways of Torah is to know them first. To study them is to start a path toward fulfillment. It is a "first date." We cannot be in relationship with someone we do not know.
Good — but study is not enough. The verb teileichu comes from the Hebrew root meaning to walk. There is an element of action that cannot be satisfied by simply learning, talking, discussing. We move on from study to observance or we stay stuck. The message is to "Guard My commandments and do them."
The commentator Sforno notes on our verse:
The Hebrew expression describing the fact that one abides by them (the commandments) is called halichah, "walking" . . . It means that they cannot just be performed by rote, but must be performed consciously as such. . . . The thrust of our verse then is as follows: "If you will conduct yourselves in accordance with the practical part of My Torah, that is, the performance of commandments requiring deeds, and you will study these laws in order to understand their purpose and in order to give meaning to your performance of these laws, you will accomplish that you will deserve the description of being a creature that reflects 'God's image.' "
Is the study of Torah "equal to them all?" No, the study of Torah leads to them all. We learn in order to do. As we read in Pirkei Avot 4:5:
Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi would say: "One who learns Torah in order to teach is given the opportunity to learn and teach. One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn, teach, observe, and do."
The blessings we get poured upon us in this parashah are the blessings of walking in a path that started with study but ended with action. Our loves and our commitments must be manifested outwardly. It is not enough to say "I love you." We need to show it, too. It is not enough to say "I feel Jewish." Those feelings need to be demonstrated in deeds.
And when we don't, there are consequences. The lack of demonstrable love often leads to a break, a fissure, a lack of trust in a relationship. It is hard for us to hear this section not only because is so very graphic, but also because we live in a society totally resistant to consequences, reproaches, and punishments. Yet we know that love without action is only an idea. And we know there are always consequences to doing nothing.
The Book of Leviticus begins by calling us into relationship. It ends with the warning that once we are in that relationship, we must be active participants. A fabulous parting message from a book that most people think is only about animal sacrifices, priests, and skin diseases.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto's new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).
The Book of Leviticus, the shortest Book of the Torah, comes to a close in this week's parashah, B'chukotai. While previous chapters in Leviticus painstakingly outline various laws and rituals that are essential to the newly formed Israelite community, the final chapters of Leviticus provide us insight into the relationship our ancestors had with God. As readers, we learn that following God's commandments would result in various blessings for our ancestors, while disobedience would result in harsh punishment. Biblical scholars describe this as retribution — obedience and faithfulness would lead to the promises of land, progeny, and wealth God established with Abraham, while straying away from God's commandments and being unfaithful would "wreak misery" upon the people (Leviticus 26:16).
The God of our Torah, then, has established a conditional relationship with our ancestors that directly opposes that of the partnership we, as liberal Jews, consider to be the pillar of our covenant between humanity and God. Therefore, retribution theology implies that our relationship with God could be as easily taken away from us as it was given. The mere notion that the Israelite's relationship with God was conditional can be problematic for us contemporary Jews who grapple with finding God's place within our lives.
What is interesting is that even when our ancestors went astray, God was always present, providing opportunities for us to follow the commandments once given to Moses at Sinai. As Reform Jews, we often turn to the prophets to guide our efforts in creating a just world. Our prophets continuously challenged past generations to reexamine their behavior and actions, and turn back to Judaism as a blueprint for living. As such, one could understand the conditions of the covenant to exclude the clause of God abandoning God's people, but to include living a life founded on Torah (Instruction), Avodah (Worship), and G'milut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness).
The partnership between humanity and God is one by which, indeed, reward and punishment does exist. While we are unable to truly assess whether our fortune is determined by God and our actions, we are able to understand that being a partner with God means not turning our backs on each other. No longer is our covenant with God about obedience and disobedience, but it is about our ongoing faith in each other, and a belief that both humanity and God have potential yet to be fully realized.
Our relationship with God is enduring and absolute, and perhaps founded on a greater condition than that understood as retribution: the condition of always being committed to each other, and dedicating our lives to making the world, and each other, better in the process.
Rabbi P.J. Schwartz is the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut.
B’chukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 957-970; Revised Edition, pp. 864-879;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 765-786
Haftarah, Jeremiah 16:19−17:14
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,006–1,008; Revised Edition, pp. 880−882