On the Other Hand: Making Our Community Better for Everyone

This week, we close out the book of Leviticus with Parashat B’chukotai, and learn about the rewards of following the commandments. Hear Rabbi Rick Jacobs’s take on why it’s important to not just live a virtuous life for ourselves, but also to help make our communities more ethical.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a  shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat B’chukotai and the power of water.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashat B’chukotai, the last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus. And it doesn't just end the book, it really puts a period on the sentence. Because in the opening of B’chukotai-- which means if you follow the laws-- chukotai is another category of commandment-- mitzvot Mishpatim. It says, "If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,"-- here's the key. This is chapter 26 verse 4 we're coming up on. "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."

That sounds like a pretty good reward for following the commandments, for doing all that the book of Leviticus particularly in the holiness code-- chapter 19 of Leviticus-- all these incredibly demanding ethical and ritual and communal and environmental responsibilities. If we do all that, the rain's going to fall in its season. Now it doesn't sound like a big thing for the rain to fall in this season. But what happens if the rain falls not in its season? Well first of all, our tradition is wise. We don't usually pray for rain during the dry season. So it's important to also get a sense of the ecosystem.

I remember hearing a teaching from Avraham Infeld, one of the great educators. For a while led Hillel here in North America, and a disciple of Rabbi David Hartman, just as I am. And he tells this story when he was growing up in South Africa, that he asked his zayde-- his grandpa-- after they had just prayed for rain at the end of Sukkot. And he said to his zayde, this is the dry season. Why are we praying for rain? And his zayde said, we're not praying for rain here, Avraham. Were praying for rain in the land of Israel.

And in geography, the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere. But it was a beautiful teaching about, first of all, the centrality of the land of Israel, the connection to that place. But also very much a connection to getting the rain to fall. And amazingly we got a whole tractate of the Babylonian Talmud called Ta'anit, which is really about trying to figure out how do you help bring about the rain. You could just wait for it, you could just wait for the synagogue service to include a prayer for the rain. You could also, in the tractate Ta'anit, which means fast, you could declare a communal fast to hopefully bring about the effect of rain coming down.

Well in the tractate there's some amazing stories of people praying for rain. In fact, you have chapters of these stories. And one of the more famous ones is the story of Honi ha-M'agel-- this Honi, the one who made circles-- because this amazing story where he was praying for rain and nothing was going on. So finally drew a circle around himself and said, I'm not leaving here until the rain falls. And at first there was just a little drizzle, and that was not meeting the needs. So Honi prayed for it, and it really came down. And when it really came down, a blessing actually turned into a curse. Not having rain is a curse, having too much rain can be a curse too. And then the rain came just at the right time in the right amounts.

On one level, it feels like, wait, if we're praying for rain, you just get what you get. It's not like you can just target it over here. It just makes me want to do a tiny digression. I've got this app on my phone, maybe you guys do too, which is so precise about the weather that when I actually check the weather app, it tells me that it's going to rain across the street from my house this afternoon at 4 o'clock. But it's not going to rain on my house. And I think to myself, really? That's pretty precise. How do they know that? And then of course 4 o'clock comes, and I look out, and there are these gray clouds over my neighbors across the street. And I'm thinking, oh my, that's unbelievably pinpointed and precise.

But if I'm praying for rain, am I praying for rain just in my field? If the rain comes down, is it going to water all the fields? And frankly, maybe the other people aren't doing all their holy work and living lives of ethical clarity. So I love that the community goes out and prays, and the hope is that the rain will come, but not too much of it.

Maybe my favorite Ta'anit rain story is a story about a great sage named Rav. And Rav was the rabbinic rock star of his community. And when they didn't have rain, and nobody knew what to do, he went up to lead the community in prayer. And he prayed and nothing happened. And people were kind of disappointed. Our great sage couldn't say the prayer and bring about the desired effect of having rainfall.

Then all of a sudden this no named guy goes up and starts leading the community in prayer. And what do you know, he says, “moreed hagashem” and the rain starts to fall. And it's amazing. So Rav went up to him and said, who are you? How do you do that? I'm Rav and I couldn't do that. Who are you and what do you do?

He said, oh, I'm a teacher of young children. And I teach the children of the rich and the poor. I teach them the same way. And if someone can't pay, I don't take anything from them. And I have this fish pond, and if I have a difficult student who's not paying attention or learning, I go and I do a little activity with the fish pond to get them interested. And I bring everybody along.

So Rav, I'm just imagining, is scratching his chin going, that sounds like you're a pretty remarkable person. And if you think about it, it wasn't just that he brought about the rain-- this teacher of young children-- he also had a fish pond. He had his own source of water. And water in our tradition is also Torah-- mayim chayim. Its living waters, and the waters of Torah that nourish us.

What I love about this story-- and rabbis or cantors listening, don't be upset, I'm a rabbi too-- is that sometimes it takes an amazing person who's not a rabbi or cantor to bring a moment of spiritual uplift and clarity. That's what this teacher of young children does. So first of all, I'd love for all of our communities to value those teachers of young children a whole lot more than we do. Because they are doing every day magic with not just fish ponds, but helping all of us to learn and all of our kids to learn. But what I love about this teaching is that we are all asked not just to live personal life of integrity and of holiness, but to be part of an interconnected community where we share responsibility for being a community of faith, a community that stands up for the rights of the vulnerable, that stands up when there is a challenge.

Now on that very point I want to say that there is a connection. Research has shown, particularly in the last two decades, between drought and genocide. Think about the following example. So you have in Syria between 2006 and 2009 a very, very serious drought. And probably brought on by some of the very factors of climate change that are going on. Well in 2011, the civil war breaks out, and a brutal horrific civil war takes the lives of half a million people. We know also in the Darfur genocide what was clearly going on in sub-Saharan Africa was a long standing drought.

So what we know is that the rhythms of the Earth and of rain and the rainy seasons and the watering of our crops sometimes leads, in its absence, to not only desperation, but to horrific massacres and death. What that means is this is much more than just getting a little bit of rain and hoping my beautiful flowers that I planted will come up and look beautiful in my lawn, in my garden. But this is about how we take care of the world.

So Bechukotai says our job is to take care of the world and to be God's partners in doing so. And when the rain falls in its season, not too much of it, not too little. That's a sign of divine favor. And it doesn't just fall on your land, or on you and your flowers, it falls on all of us or it doesn't. So we are collectively responsible for what happens in Rwanda, and Darfur, and in Syria, and in all places around the globe. That's one of the things that the teacher of young children in our Talmudic story taught, that sense of mutual responsibility, that sense of we're in it together.

So let's, as we conclude, a book of the Torah. It's a time to think back on all the lessons that we've learned, all the teachings we've internalized, all the commitments that we have made, and all the difference that we can collectively have on the world around us and the community in which we find ourselves. So Bechukotai, if you walk in these ways, the rain will fall and its season, and there will be peace in the land. But when we don't or when we don't help our wider community to live that way, we have not only crisis, but we could have the most dangerous and painful things known to humankind called genocide. So it's a bit of a wake up at the end of the book. It's a monumental challenge that's put before us. And that's what it means to be people of faith.

So please, wherever you are-- I know I've met a few of you on the journeys of the last couple of months-- and some people tell me they're out walking on Friday morning as a way to get ready for Shabbat, and they listen to the podcast. Others, they're doing drop off of carpools for school. Wherever you are hear the words, chazak chazak v'nitchazek. Let us be strengthened by our study. Let us be fortified by what we learn. Let us be emboldened and inspired to live out these teachings today, tomorrow, and every day.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today-- and we hope you did-- you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to write and review us. And you can visit ReformJudiasm.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On The Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l’hitraot!