B’chukotai – (Follow my laws)

Leviticus 26:3 to 27:14

Torah provides us with a list of “blessings and curses” that seem to apply only to the Biblical past. But, if we consider that the actions we take have consequences, the blessings and curses and the actions we take can have great impact on our lives.

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant you rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce … I will grant peace in your land …. I will look with favor upon you, and make your fertile and multiply you…I will establish My abode in your midst and I will not spurn you…. ” (Lev. 26:3-11)

balance

“But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules … I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever …. You shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues…” (Lev. 14-17) … And the curses get worse … a lot worse. If you don’t believe me, read them.

Gunther Plaut comments that these blessings and curses follow the same format as treaties of Biblical times between nations and, in many cases, between the rulers and the people. They basically stated … If you do this, then I will do this….. but, if you don’t, there will be the consequences. The “Blessings and Curses” of this parsha follow the same concept, a treaty between the Eternal and the Israelites. (Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed., p.873) Looking at this week’s parsha with that perspective, one can easily dismiss it as a suitable ending for a group of laws given to people thousands of years ago.

But, maybe the message goes deeper. Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan (Rabbi at Har Shalom, Fort Collins, CO) notes: “At the start of the parashah we find another phrase connected to the idea of walking. Moses is told that if the people walk with God, hithalkhti b’toch’chem, “I (God) will walk about in your midst.” The word b’toch can mean in the midst of the people, but it is often interpreted by the rabbis as meaning ‘within each individual.’ In other words, if the people walk in God’s statutes then God will be within each of them wherever they go.” (Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan, Walking in God’s Ways, a commentary on B’chukotai from the Jewish Reconstructionist website –JewishRecon.org)

Rabbi Dalia Marx (Associate professor of liturgy and Midrash, Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR) carries this concept of internalizing God a step further in an posting on Reform 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 (The passage deals with retribution in the form of denying the rain needed for farming if the people don’t follow the laws of Torah or if they bow down to or serve other gods.) This theology of retribution, of reward and punishment, 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.” (Rabbi Dalia Marx, Walking and Standing, a D’var Torah on B’chukotai on ReformJudaism.org)

Putting the ideas presented by these two Rabbis together, we understand that we all have the God-given power of choice… to follow or not follow the laws and commandments of Torah…. Torah teaches that we are the stewards of the plants and animals on earth – not owners, to do as we wish … It tells us to treat our neighbors with justice and respect – not to live a life in the style of “what’s in it for me.” In other words, be a mensh … and, in the long run, things will be better. The power to fashion an outcome is ours, not God’s.

With these comments, we end our study of Leviticus for this year. Every year I look forward to this book of Torah because its contents seem very relevant to me … I believe that it sets a positive framework showing how I, together with others within my community, can work together to build a world that maximizes the “blessings” and minimizes the “curses.”

…. And, as usual, at the end of each book of Torah we say … Chazak, Chazak, Venitchazak: From strength to strength we strengthen each other. May we continue to find strength and friendship through our “journey” through the Torah.

Earl Sabes

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