It is not obvious that the compilers of the Torah chose to finish the third book of the Torah with a set of blessings and curses. A similar section of blessings and curses, yet much longer, is found at the end of Deuteronomy, the fifth Torah book. It appears in the last speech delivered by Moses before his death (Deuteronomy 28). Forty years separate these two sections of admonishment. The journey of the people of Israel is delimited or encased at its beginning and at its end by wonderful promises and terrible threats: "If you follow [walk with] My laws" says God, you will be blessed and "but if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments" dreadful curses will fall upon you" (Leviticus 26:3; 14).
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the well-known Israeli intellectual, asked about the word "walk" (Hebrew root, hei-lamed-chaf) in the statutes of the Torah as opposed to the words "hold," (chet-zayin-kuf), or "stand," (ayin-mem-dalet), in the statutes.1 He explains that to follow the Torah is neither a static nor a passive endeavor, but rather an ongoing process. The meaning of a commandment's fulfillment is to carry it out, to realize its potential. Leibowitz continues saying that unlike human beings, angels have a completely different character. In his prophecy, the prophet Zechariah, sees angels standing near Joshua, the High Priest, and he is told: "then I will give you free access among these that stand by" (Zechariah 3:7). The angels are "standing"; their character is fixed and does not change.
The angels stand in one place: they do not eat, drink, sleep, or reproduce. Human beings (and animals) on the other hand, are engaged in all of these activities. But human beings have one important quality that neither angels nor animals have-the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to choose. Angels cannot do wrong, and therefore there is no moral significance to their deeds; they cannot do wrong, and therefore, they also cannot do good.
Unlike the "standing" ones, human beings must be in constant motion, in process. A well-known Israeli commercial from the 1980s taught us that "if you do not go forward, you go backward." In other words, it is not possible to simply stand still: standing actually means moving backward. In Jewish tradition, the legal system is called halachah, meaning literally "the way [to walk]." It's a word that shows its dynamism, and the fact that it must be a process and cannot be stagnant.
Only those who consider themselves angels can allow themselves to stand. The rest of us understand that we, human beings, have the duty to walk in the world and to choose, again and again. We also have to make our Judaism into a process. A Judaism that does not "walk" and choose is a frozen and lifeless Judaism.
Liberal Jews emphasize the principle of choice as an essential religious duty, but many of them have difficulty with the biblical language of retribution. This is the reason why many Reform siddurim have omitted the second paragraph of the recitation of the Sh'ma, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which is excerpted below:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day . . . I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil . . . . Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down to them. For the Eternal's anger will flare up against you . . . (Deuteronomy 11:13-17).
The theology of retribution, of reward and punishment, reflected in this paragraph has bothered many Reform siddur editors. Many have felt that it is a primitive theology and they have rejected the image of God as a bookkeeper of good and bad deeds, a God that inflicts pain and gives relief, a God that wounds and heals (Job 5:18).
In recent years though, more and more people understand that these passages are not childish threats, but rather they are reminders that our deeds have meaning and, therefore, they also have results:
· If we preserve our environment and do not pollute it, we will delay, if not prevent bad ecological changes from taking place, and we will receive the blessing in our parashah that "the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit" (Leviticus 26:4)
· If we run our governments with justice and wisdom we will be worthy of the promise found in our parashah: "I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone" (26:6)
· If we are just and pure, God will dwell in our midst, as it is said in our parashah, "I will establish My abode in your midst" (26:11)
The section of blessings and curses in Parashat B'chukotai speaks in a language that often seems strange and distant from us. But if we "translate" it to our world of meaning it may teach us what it means to live in the world. It demands that we not avoid our duty to choose to do what is right. That is what is expected of us-to be just and steadfast in our efforts to be so.
May the words of the poet Natan Alterman guide us:
I shall never stop looking, I shall never stop breathing
And I shall die and will keep going. (B'derech Hag'dolah, "On the High Road")2
1. Seven Years of Discourses on the Weekly Torah Reading, Jerusalem 2000, pp. 597-598 (in Hebrew)
Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck. She would like to dedicate this d'var Torah to her students in the Year in Israel program at HUC-JIR who studied the Sh'ma with her this year.
As Rabbi Marx discusses, many Reform siddur editors have been bothered by the biblical language of retribution that appears in passages in this portion and in various parts of Deuteronomy. The same holds true for many congregants. On the Sabbaths when these portions are scheduled to be read, often the baal korei (Torah reader) will chant them quickly at a whisper so the congregation can avoid prolonged contact with them. Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger (z"l), wrote, "The public reading of these threatening passages caused great uneasiness to former generations. . . . people avoided the privilege of being called up [to say a blessing] on the Sabbaths when the curses were ready from Leviticus and Deuteronomy."1
Rabbis have long struggled to understand the concept of reward and punishment in our sacred texts. In discussing the Sh'ma, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff writes, ". . . we cannot fathom God's justice: whether we are talking about individuals or communities, it is simply not true that the righteous always prosper and the wicked suffer . . ."2 But he provides useful guidance to motivate our performance of the mitzvot, "I also believe that 'The reward of performing a commandment is [the propensity and opportunity to perform another] commandment, and the result of doing a wicked thing is [the propensity and opportunity to do another] wicked thing (M. Avot 4:2). That is, we should do the right thing because it is the right thing and not out of hope for reward . . . "2
Offering a silver lining, this section of our parashah ends on a comforting note, "Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them . . . I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt. . . ." (Leviticus 26:44-45). Despite the harshness of the earlier text, this ending holds out hope for redemption.
1. Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger, commentator, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005) p. 873
2. Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, quoted in My People's Prayer Book, vol. 1-The Sh'ma and It's Blessings, ed. Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing,1997), pp.107-108
Audrey Merwin is a member of the URJ's communications team and is the editor of Reform Voices of Torah.
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