Praying to God’s Smaller Face: Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

In this week’s Torah portion, it is written: I broke the pegs of your yoke and led you upright. (Leviticus 26:13).

On this verse, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch (one of the early leaders of Chasidism) commented: “An animal walks with its face to the earth, for earthiness and materiality is all that it knows. Man walks upright, for man was born to gaze upon and aspire to the heavens.”

In the ancient threefold priestly blessing, there are two mentions of God’s face. When I think of the first mention, “May God’s Face shine upon you and be gracious to you,” I think of that face shining like a sun, radiant and coaxing you to grow, drying your tears and painting your world gold. It is incomprehensibly grand, and yet, even from that royal height, that face is looking at you! With favor!

In the second mention, “May God’s Face lift up to you, and grant you peace,” I imagine that face small, such that you have to look down, searching the earth, amid the tiny things, the building blocks of our biosphere, and from that place of the itty-bitty, that place of single-celled life and tiny blinks of hope, from there the face lifts up to you, because you are grand and a wonder to behold!

In most of our prayers and theology, we focus on the first face, the face of the heavens. When I wrote this prayer, “Prayer for a Cure for Cancer,” I wrote it to the smaller face.I wrote it facing the earth, addressing earthiness and physicality, calling upon the God of small things, for the same God who took us out of Egypt amid signs and wonders also mended our sandals all along that long journey.


Prayer for a Cure for Cancer

We are sometimes mistaken
when we fear that which is big.
Godzilla, King Kong
Asteroid, Armageddon
At least we can see it when it comes.
We are sometimes mistaken
when we fear that which is big.
Change, birth,
death, love.
At least we can throw our arms wide around it.

God of big things,
God of great deeds,
God of the drama of the Exodus,
the parting of the seas,
the fire on the mountain,
the creation out of nothing,
we are wonderstruck by You,
dazzled by big things.

But are You not also the God of the small,
God of the turning leaf,
God of the grain of sand,
God of the passing shadow,
God of the rotting fruit?

I address You now
as God of the small,
because sometimes we are mistaken
when we fear that which is big,
when that which is most frightening of all
is small,
the size of a melanomic cell,
the size of a metastatic pinpoint,
the size of a golf ball,
the size of a grapefruit
growing where there is no tree.

That immutable danger
that makes us victims of our own
soft tissue, lymphnodes, and blood,
that devastating fear
that stalks us out of passing shadows,
out of the mist of pesticide,
tar, benzene, p.c.b. toxicities,
out of the glow of gamma-rays, x-rays, ultraviolet rays, aluminum foil,
out of the silicone, the tobacco, the skin of an apple,
the high saturated fats, the low fiber,
the vegetable hair dyes,
out of nothing,
out of nothing.
You are good at that God,
Creation out of nothing.
I pray to You now, God of small things,
God of miracles-barely-perceived
by the naked, mortal eye,
I pray to You now, God of small things,
for a spontaneous global
For erasure of that word that lurks darkly
behind our words.
When Moses’ sister was struck
Moses spoke five small words to You.
El na rafa na la.
God please heal her please.
You answered, and You healed her.

Whether you are looking down or looking up, whether your world has narrowed with constraints of health and age, or your world has widened with possibility, may you feel the warmth of God’s smile upon you, and may the pegs of your yoke be broken that you may walk upright, with dignity, and gaze upon and aspire to the heavens.

God’s Belongings

This week’s Torah portion is called "Behar" because it begins "The Lord spoke to Moses behar (on Mount [Sinai]). Upon reflection, something seems out of order. We left Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus.

Most of the laws in the Book of Leviticus were revealed in the Tent of Meeting. Why does the Torah portion suddenly shift back to Mount Sinai?

Rabbinic tradition explains the anomaly by asserting that the Torah isn’t chronological. But that answer doesn’t satisfy me. Why bring us back to Mount Sinai for this particular parsha?

Behar describes the seventh year as a sabbatical year when the land rests, and the year after the 49th year as the jubilee year when indentured servants can go free and the land returns to its original owner. These laws make it impossible for society to form rigid social classes where rich families will always be rich and poor families will always stay poor. Then, the Torah portion ends with an admonition to keep Shabbat, another cycle of seven. The parsha makes it clear that everything belongs to God: land, people, even time.

We read Behar at a time in the Jewish year when we are counting another cycle of seven: the omer. The omer was a measure of barley that was offered as a sacrifice after Passover at the beginning of the spring harvest. From that offering, our ancestors counted seven weeks until Shavuot, which marked the more important wheat harvest.

We’re not farmers any more. Rabbinic tradition de-emphasized the agricultural basis of Shavuot and focused instead on Shavuot as the day we stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The goal of the counting is to bring us to Shavuot; to stand again at Sinai, behar.

Counting the days between Passover and Shavuot reminds us that the freedom represented by Passover, freedom from oppression, is only the beginning. Freedom is not just freedom from — it is freedom for a purpose. That purpose is Torah. Torah teaches us that to be free is to be responsible, to understand that every choice matters. Torah teaches us that we live in a universe that makes claims on us.

What happened at Mount Sinai? The story isn’t so clear. Our tradition teaches us that we were all there, every Jew who ever was or ever will be, whether we were born as Jews or we chose Judaism. Some commentators believe that we heard God speak the Ten Commandments; others believe that we heard only the first two, because they are the only ones given in the first person. Still others believe that all we heard was the first word of the first commandment: "Anochi — I am." And that word revealed everything.

If we can hear "Anochi," if we really know that "God is," what else do we need? Because God is, everything else follows. When we experience the reality of God’s presence, our response must be to create lives worthy to be lived in the presence of God. If God is, then the universe makes a claim on us to respond in such a way as to create a world that reflects the presence of God in every dimension of our life.

There is another view of what happened at Mount Sinai. It is that all we heard at Mount Sinai was the first letter of the first word: alef — a silent letter. All we heard was Divine silence, or perhaps God’s breath. And as we breathe, we understand that God is in us as well.

What happened at Mount Sinai? Each of us heard God in our own way, and our lives are a response to how we understand what we heard.

That’s why we want to go back to Mount Sinai, year after year. We want to re-experience the divinity that is all around us. But it isn’t easy. We have to count, we have to work on ourselves, we have to move through the narrow places of slavery to be expansive enough to hear God’s call. And so we count the omer, seven weeks of seven days.

The mystical tradition imagines God unfolding in 10 emanations, seven of which flow into the world. Each of the weeks of the omer represents one of those dimensions of divinity, as does each day. The first day is the day of chesed (lovingkindness), in the week of chesed. The second day is the day of gevurah (discipline) within the week of chesed. As we count, we are challenged to refine ourselves by reflecting on those dimensions within ourselves, examining our own qualities of lovingkindness, discipline, balance, strength, humility, bonding and nobility. It is this spiritual work of preparation that enables us to go back to the mountain, to experience again the presence of God.

And if we do the work, after seven weeks of seven days, we are again on the mountain, behar. From this high place, we see the world from a different perspective and understand that everything is part of God, including land, people and time. Behar, we again hear God challenging us to create lives worthy to be lived in God’s presence, and to create a society that reflects that presence.

Laura Geller is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.