June 20, 2019

Torah portion: May you grow like an onion

“If you follow My Laws faithfully and observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce … you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in the land” (Leviticus 26:3-5).

“But,” God says … and we know the Holy Shoe is about to drop.

“If you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, and if you reject My laws and spurn My rules … I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever … you shall be routed by your enemies and your foes shall dominate you” (Leviticus 26:14-17).  

A string of admonitions known as the tochecah then follow. The curses read like a developing screenplay for God’s horror movie. In the opening sequences we see a land plagued by disease, where “skies are like iron and earth like copper” (Leviticus 19-22).

The shot expands, until we see a land so desolate “that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it,” with cities in ruins (Leviticus 31-32). We get a glimpse of the inhabitants, who are so faint of heart that “the sound of a driven leaf puts them to flight,” and “they fall though none pursues” (Leviticus 26:36). 

It’s so Hollywood. But at some point the creative juices of the Holy One get out of control. It’s not enough that 10 women bake bread in one oven and “though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.” Eventually, “You will eat the flesh of your sons and daughters” (Leviticus 26:26-29). 

“Cut!” the producers scream. 

“Sorry,” God replies, “but it’s my script.”

Jews have often turned to the black humor of curses as a way of coping with a reality beyond their control. “May you grow like an onion — with your head in the ground! May all your teeth fall out — except one to give you a toothache!” God’s curses, however, are not the result of powerlessness but of resistance to God’s guidance. Im talchu iti b’keri, God says. “If you remain hostile to me, and refuse to obey me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins” (Leviticus 26:21). 

The Hebrew word “keri” means rebellious. As a liberal Jew, my first reaction to God’s words is to offer a withering look of teenage rebellion. What do you mean: If you follow my commandments, I will grant you rain in its season? How can there be a direct connection between my actions and the natural world?

Anyone living in California now knows that this is true. 

We are in the midst of a severe drought, exacerbated by our profligate use of water and fossil fuels. Climate change is a reality, and we are called upon daily to make significant changes in our living habits, lest “our skies turn to iron and our earth become like copper.” 

Aerial photos of California’s shrinking forests and dry riverbeds send a chill through our hearts. We look north and see the oil fields of Alberta, Canada, burning like a vision of apocalypse. Our Yiddish curses have been updated: “May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground — and may your teeth fall out from the shaking brought about by fracking.”

Standing in an endless LAX security line, fearful of the very real terrorist threat, I am reminded of how “the sound of a driven leaf will put them to flight,” and I hear the modern curse, “May you secure the perfect flight, purchased on miles with an upgrade, but then stand in line so long that your thrombosis makes it impossible for you to fly.” 

The word “keri” comes from the root k-r, or kor, which can mean callousness or coldness. When we act with cold disregard for the needs and feelings of others, we produce a society with high unemployment, racial discrimination and the plague of homelessness. We turn away “b’keri” and find ourselves grappling with cities threatened with violence and ruin. We live on high alert. 

We are to act as God’s partner in creating a harmonious world, one where the rains fall in their season and the earth yields its fruit. We have been given mitzvot, God’s commandments to love our neighbor as ourselves, to take care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and to give the land its rest. 

The Book of Leviticus ends: “These are the laws, rules and instructions that the Lord established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people ”(Leviticus 27:34). All five books of the Torah end with the injunction: Hazak, hazak v’nitchazek. “Be Strong, be strong, be strengthened.” God knows it’s never easy. 

May you grow like an onion, green shoots waving in the sun. 

Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.