December 8, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Bechukotai

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

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. –Leviticus 26:3-4


Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
Path With Heart

At first glance, this verse is not true. The theology that suggests following God’s commandments will be rewarded, while disobeying them will be punished, has been rejected by most of us. We all know good people who suffer, and criminals who escape justice. In 2019, however, this Torah verse urgently calls us to reflect beyond the obvious. 

We now know that the very survival of the planet depends on following God’s words to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Protect the planet and care for her (avdah u-shomrah).” Human action and inaction have the power to shift weather patterns, resulting in droughts and hurricanes. In 2018, the United Nations released a “Doomsday” report, leading environmentalist David Attenborough to say, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” The deep truth of this Levitical verse has never been more imperative. Before it is too late, we must recognize that our precious earth is God’s.  

“… the land is mine and you are but strangers journeying with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23) 

If we do not wake up, our children and grandchildren truly will have a future of a diminishing food supply and withered trees. We ignore this Torah at our peril, “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1) Our very world, so often taken for granted, depends on it.

Rabbi Jackie Redner
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

When I was in my 20s, I deemed ideas like the one presented in this week’s passage ridiculous and disturbing. I hated the inherent guilt in the equation. In my 50s, I think I begin to understand its purpose — the direction in which it propels us as a people. The Torah emerged in a world where, in times of crisis, groups readily exchanged their god for the gods of those who seemed to be luckier, stronger, more powerful. The Torah understands this human tendency. This was not to be our destiny as a people. 

Guilt is not and was never meant to be an endpoint. Guilt is a beginning, a doorway into an exploration of what it means to be human. Guilt keeps us turning again and again to God and in the process is transformed into conscience.  Conscience, unlike guilt, elevates humanity because it expands the human heart, making space for God or Godliness to reside.  

Whether it is true that our moral failings lead to drought, I don’t know. In my 50s, unlike my 20s, it no longer seems that important. What I do know is that humanity is raised by exploring where we can do better. What is true is that God is with us even in that … even in suffering … even in moral failure. As Jews, we turn toward God … always toward. Whether the rain comes in its time … or not.   

Gratitude to Magid Paul Wolf for teaching me the difference between guilt and conscience. 

Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik
Director of the Jewish Learning Exchange in Los Angeles

“If,” the opening word of this verse, teaches us an important Jewish concept. “If” represents potential. It indicates we have free choice to choose right and wrong and to live a more elevated life. We may believe we are compelled to be someone or to do something because of our nature, how we were raised or the circumstances of our life. The verse is teaching us, however, that we have the power of change. We can make choices, and we have free will to take the high road, refine our character and follow God’s commandments. 

The latter part of the verse is also teaching us about the consequences of our actions in the here and now. We may think that spiritual achievement receives spiritual rewards in a metaphysical existence. Although that is true, the Torah also is teaching that good choices have positive ramifications in this physical world. When one makes the right moral choice, he or she becomes a better person and changes the world one act at a time. As Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” 

When we live a life filled with Torah study and efforts to fulfill God’s will, we can also achieve true happiness, meaning and purpose. And finally, God may bless us with His bounty because of the correct tough choices we make. 

For a modern-day story that personifies these ideas, contact me at rabbi@jlela.com 

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick
Mishkon Venice

A parable: A king plants a tree in the middle of the palace courtyard. He instructs his courtiers how to water and care for the tree and how to disperse its fruit, ensuring that everyone receives a fair share. However, years pass and the courtiers begin to neglect the tree — they water it only when convenient and the most powerful take the bulk of the fruit for themselves. Division and bloodshed ensue. If only the people had followed the king’s instructions … 

When God placed Adam in Eden, God told him that the Earth was his to both work and protect. Later the Torah would provide many mitzvot concerning the relationship between agriculture and civil society. It makes clear that, should we cease to follow God’s instructions — by overworking the land and ignoring the needs and rights of others — then we will be no better than the courtiers in the parable and should only expect the worst to ensue. 

So many of today’s problems arise from a disregard for God’s laws concerning agriculture and equitable distribution. Around the world, we see war and struggles break out over limited resources. We witness crime and violence by people who feel neglected and cheated. We experience extreme storms and weather changes because of our disregard for Earth’s fragility. If this is not the world we want to pass onto our children, then maybe it is time we return to God’s instructions — to Torah and mitzvot, which demand our agricultural wealth be cherished and shared. 

Judy Gruen
Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”

This is a pretty straightforward promise: follow God’s laws and be rewarded with His overwhelming blessings. The blessings are material in nature, but spiritual rewards are implied. However, following these blessings is a frightening list of punishments, growing in severity, if we continue to spurn the covenant. Tragically, these punishments have all come to pass throughout Jewish history, the consequence of our rebelliousness. 

Why do we need to learn the hard way that God knows best? 

A clue: The word in this verse for “law” is chok, meaning statute or decree. Other laws, known as mishpatim, or ordinances, are usually social laws whose logic we can readily understand. The logic of a chok is not readily apparent to the human intellect, such as the law of kashrut or shatnez, a forbidden mingling of wool and linen in the same garment. 

But chok has another meaning — engraved. We were given the Torah both in written form, on parchment scrolls, and engraved by God on the two stone tablets. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi observed that when something is written, the ink that forms the letters remains a separate entity from the surface it is written on. Engraved letters, however, become one with the surface: the words are stone and the stone is words. 

Is the Torah merely “inked” on our souls, influential yet still somehow separate from us, or engraved, creating an unbreakable bond with God? It is up to each of us to choose.