Bechukotai: Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do

Chaverim,

Many Reform siddur editors have been bothered by the biblical language of retribution as they appear in our Torah portion Bechukotai and in various parts of Deuteronomy. The same holds true for many congregants. On the Shabbatot 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.“

Rabbis have long struggled to understand the concept of reward and punishment in our sacred texts. In discussing the Sh’ma (see page 67 in our Siddur Mishkan Tefilah), 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 …“ 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 . . .

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 favour 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.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

(Source: Audrey Merwin )

 

 

Parashat Bechukotai – I will look with favour upon you

Chaverim, friends

It has taken the orthodox community in Johannesburg almost 3 ½ years to realise that Bet David has an openly gay rabbi. To be honest, I am not so sure if this news went around earlier, but to me it looks like that this became a topic in the wider – not progressive community of Johannesburg – only recently.

I am not sharing this observation with you all because I want to discuss my sexual orientation with you, but because of the way this discussion apparently has made waves outside of Bet David. Some of you have shared with me how your friends have expressed their “concerns” in this regard, saying that ‘being gay might be against the bible’.

Of course, this kind of argument is not new, nor is it only common in Judaism. My usual reply would be to counter such an argument with one of the following statements:

OK – so – now we are taking the words of the bible literally? Interpreting it word for word? Yes, let me ask you this:

  • Are you considering stoning your sons to death because they didn’t obey your instructions?
  • Do you intend returning the house you bought to its previous owner 50 years ago – of course, without asking for the any financial compensation to be paid?
  • How can you rightfully go to synagogue when you’ve had contact with a dead body? You know, killing a spider count, too.
  • The same applies to animal sacrifices and much more ….

The simple point I’m making is that one can’t just pick certain laws as absolute and eternal to point fingers at others, while declaring other mitzvot as not relevant or “flexible” when they touch your way of living.

Of course, the discussion often ends here. Not because the other person agrees or is convinced that having a same-gender relationship could be as holy as any other loving relationship, but because the sexual orientation discussion – particularly of a rabbi – might not be worth the full theological dispute.

For today, because of the Torah portion we have before us, allow me to go a bit further. The opening of our parasha says:

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. … I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone … [and] I will look with favour upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you. [1]

Only some verses later, we read what is supposed to happen if we choose to follow a different path:

But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you … [and] I will set My face against you: …[2]

In beautiful language our Torah portion levels the playing fields, making us all equal while standing in front of the Torah/God. It also points fingers at each one of us, telling us that the Divine has presented us with a colourful set of ideas, concepts, values, rules, and commandments, and that we – every single of us – is expected to make a choice, to decide now, on the path ahead of us.

However, the challenge of this Torah portion is that it appears very limited in its options and it seems that we only got one of two choices:
Option A: to follow, or option B: not to follow. Each has its own set of consequences as stated above. The text doesn’t say, you might follow Options A, B, C, but not D, and perhaps E with some amendments.  We are given an ‘Either – Or’ choice. Take them all, or you are in breach of the contract, says the text.

Here is the real struggle we face when we take the Torah literally. No one, and I mean not one of us is capable of adhering to the biblical text in its literal sense. We know it, and I am sure the Torah itself knows it, too.

Still, it poses a terribly challenging question:

  • How can someone be Jewish in these circumstances?
  • How can someone be part of the Covenant with God, knowing that parts of the Torah come either as a challenge to their existence, or are even in clear contrast to one’s very nature?

Men and women alike, straight, gay, trans, old and young, families and singles, poor and wealthy, white or black, Reform, Orthodox or secular!

Assuming that we all agree upon the common dominator – not to reject the Torah, and that we cannot re-write the Torah

  • how can we follow God’s laws, especially the difficult and challenging ones, and at the same time being faithfully authentic to the way we live our lives?
  • How can we be true to our commitment to our Jewish heritage?
  • How can we end the fear that God might turn God’s favour away from us?

Rabbi Dalia Marx, in her article „Walking and Standing“, gives us a different perspective to understand this very challenging parasha by pointing out a wonderful interpretation of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a well-known Israeli intellectual:[3].

Looking at the third word of our reading – Im Bechukotai telechu, If you walk in My laws – Leibowitz brings our attention to the different character of the word „to walk“ (hei-lamed-chaf) in contrast to the Hebrew words for „to hold,“ (chet-zayin-kuf), or “ to stand,“ (ayin-mem-dalet). Using either ‘to hold’ or ‘to stand’ as the opening word of our sidra instead, would offer us a very different result in guiding us to understand God’s will.

Leibowitz explains that to follow the Torah is neither a static nor a passive endeavour, but rather an on-going process. The word Halacha – Jewish law –  means path, implying, that you have to walk – holech – and not stand still, in order to fulfil the religious obligations. The meaning of a commandment’s fulfilment is to carry it out, and to realise its potential.

Walking is not only a recurrent metaphor in our reading today. Elsewhere in the Torah, we have read that

  • Noah is praised for walking with God (6:9).
  • Abraham is the biggest walker of them all, covering many hundreds of kilometres in his dusty sandals. God commands him to get up, walk around the land (13:17), and walk before God and be blameless (17:1) and later Abraham is using his experiences of his journeys to challenge God in God’s plans
  • In Exodus, God walks before Israel in a pillar of cloud,
  • and in Deuteronomy, Moses promises that God walks before you; God will not release you nor will God abandon you.[4]

Chaverim, Friends, is it any wonder that Judaism came to associate its method of religious practice with walking, and that our movement is defined as a Progressive Movement, a movement that is not standing still in its interpretation of our Jewish heritage? Of course not. The Rabbis created this normative world of halacha to keep the Torah relevant for future generations.

In a wonderful Talmudic midrash, the Sage Ulla claimed that since the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has no place in the world except for the four cubits of halacha [meaning the Talmud][5]. This may sound claustrophobic, but unlike the Temple, the halacha is not enclosed on four sides. It has boundaries, yes, but its origins stretch way back to the mystical beginning of time, and its destination remains beyond our imagination, open for new interpretations.

I like to think of the four cubits of halacha as the width of a path. A cubit is said to be somewhere between 40 and 60cm long, so a four-cubit path is 1,20 to 1,80m wide. It is broader than a regular path, but narrower than a proper road. It is just right for two people to walk side by side, engaged in an animated conversation.

The metaphor of walking and talking is a beautiful way of thinking of Jewish life. — Our religion has seldomly emphasised a solitary lifestyle or Jewish path. The image of someone going through life’s challenges without the support of a community, or struggling with a text alone, has never been the concept of Jewish learning and being part of the Jewish Covenant.

Walking on a path together with one another is a social, dynamic metaphor. And, never forget: God is available to walk with you — to walk alongside you. Religious life is a journey and not a road we must fear.

Yes, the section of blessings and curses in Parashat B’chukotai may at first seem to alienate us and detach us from God and our heritage. But, if we ‘translate’ it to our world of meaning, and when we read it in context with all the teachings of the Torah, we will understand what it means to walk with God.

The Torah demands that we do not avoid our responsibilities and our duties. We need to choose to do what is right, but also to be ourselves, to be who we are. Never forget that we all are created in the image of God, to be God’s partners.

Friends, following Abraham’s example, we have the right to say no when necessary … even to God. There is no way that we must tolerate injustice vis-à-vis ourselves and/or others. We need to choose life, and to live that life, always.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell
Shabbat Bechukotai 5778 / 12 May 2018

SAUPJ Biennial Conference – Johannesburg, South Africa

[1] Leviticus 26:3-9

[2] Leviticus 26:14-17

[3] Rabbi Dalia Marx, Walking and Standing, reformjudaism.org

[4] Cited after: DANIEL NEVINS, Walking together with God

[5] bT Berakhot 8a / Cited after: DANIEL NEVINS, Walking together with God

Walking with God

Since Abraham, Israelites and Jews have been on physical, spiritual and moral journeys. This week’s Sidra, Bechukotai, contains in its first ten verses three applications of the Hebrew root HaLaCH (to go) which contain a beautiful insight into how Jews can encounter God from different angles.

The first appearance of the root is in the beginning where God promises rain, peace and fertility if the Israelites „walk (telechu) in My laws …“ This suggests that the Israelites must be active in order to achieve God’s desire. In our times, if we observe God’s laws as determined by the Halacha, we can be comforted by the knowledge that our „walking“ is helping us fulfil God’s wishes.

Secondly, in verse 12 God pledges – in a reflexive use of the verb, vehithalachti – to „walk amongst you“. In addition to our walking towards God’s commandments, because of our observance of God‘s laws, God will also walk amongst us.

The third usage is in verse 13 when God reminds the Israelites that God brought them out of Egypt and made them „walk upright“. Here lies a possible clue to what God is preparing us for. As opposed to a slave, a free person walks „upright“. Having been freed from slavery, we can choose whether to walk in God’s path or not.

A.J. Heschel argues passionately that God is searching for us as much as the other way round and in order for us to find God, we must position ourselves in a place where we can be found. In this interpretation, perhaps we can appreciate that while both God and us will „walk“, God has already taken the first steps; and we will be found and God will truly walk amongst us.

Shabbat Shalom—Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Michael Wegier)

 

Behar – Bechukotai: Walking upright and unafraid

In our parashah, God vows to enact a series of blessings and curses for the Israelites—blessings if they observe the commandments, and curses if they do not. In her interpretation, Rabbi Lisa Exler explains that the blessings are “curiously framed” by the image of walking.

Walking is, for many of us, our most basic vehicle for navigating the world. Yet we probably don’t put much thought into it. We’re more concerned with where we’re going than how we’re getting there; and unless we’re on a hike, we rarely think of walking as an end in itself, or count it among our blessings. Our biblical passage opens with God stating the condition for receiving these blessings:

Im bechukotai teileichu—If you walk in accordance with My laws and observe and do My commandments.” And the section concludes with God’s promise to walk, in return: “V’hithalachti b’tochechem—And I will walk in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be My people.”

The section of blessings could have ended there, with the final inspiring blessing being one of reciprocal relationship and intimacy between God and the Israelites. But it doesn’t. Instead, it ends with the following verse, a seemingly superfluous description of God’s role in the Exodus, which, significantly, also includes the image of walking:

I am Adonai your God who took you out from the land of Egypt, from being their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright—va’olech etchem komemiyut.

A midrash explains that the word komemiyut, upright—which appears only this once in Torah, means “with a straight spine and unafraid of any creature.” In other words, God reminds the Israelites that they are no longer oppressed slaves living in fear; but rather, dignified people who can stand tall and walk proudly and are free to choose their own paths. The Israelites’ ability to walk upright, which they attained through their experience of the Exodus, was the necessary precondition for the other “walkings” described previously in the text—walking in accordance with God’s laws and God’s reciprocal walking among the people, bestowing upon them the blessings of rain, food, peace and fertility.

May we continue to be blessed to walk upright and to share our blessings with those in need. Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat and a meaningful week.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

 

Bechukotai and LagBaOmer

The torah portion for this Shabbat is Bechukotai (Lev. 26.3-27.34):

God promises that if Israel will keep the commandments, they will enjoy material prosperity and dwell secure in their homeland. But God also delivers a harsh warning of the exile, persecution and other evils that will befall them if they abandon their covenant with the Eternal. Nevertheless,

Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away; nor will I ever abhor them, to destroy them and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. (Lev 26.44)

This torah portion opens many questions for us, especially how we could understand the biblical idea of punishment and blessings, and how we should understand it today. What we can learn from the description is a better understanding of a messianic time: A time full of blessings – a world in balance. A world where we get enough for what we worked for. A world without shortage of food, and a world where God is in our midst and men walk free and erected. I can find comfort in these lines, because the vision of a messianic age doesn’t appear unreachable to me. This messianic world is not restricted to some gods or supermen residing on the top of a mountain or on the other side of the sea. It is in our hands to start the process, and to fulfill the visions of the torah and the prophets.

***

On Sunday we will mark the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer which commenced on the second night of Pesach and will conclude on the 49th day with the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is Lag B’omer; the day that tradition holds as a marker in this counting cycle due to the purported lifting of a plague amongst the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century.

Rabbi Michael Shire wrote the following explanation I’d like to share with you:

So the 33rd day is a stop in the on-going counting much like the momentary pause of an old clock as it reaches 12 and prepares to go round again. On our journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from Egypt to Sinai, from slavery to freedom we symbolically walk away from the things that oppress us and towards release of harmful habits, destructive behaviours, self-defeat or our own oppressions. … Peter Senge, the management guru, in his book ‘Presence’ indicates that in order to “let go”, we have to look back and pause on what we have learned from our past experiences. By pausing, we come into a state of ‘presence’ and in that state, we allow something else to “let come”. New insights, new hopes, new ambitions and a new way of looking at the reality around us can be part of this process. …
Counting of the Omer may seem one of those strange anachronistic Jewish folkways but it may just be another way to understand ourselves and our journeys through life arriving at Shavuot in order to let Torah come to us in a new and inspired way.