Skip to content

Parashat Bechukotai 5776 — 06/04/2016

Parashat Bechukotai 5776 — 06/04/2016

Vayikra 26:3-27:34

The Tokhecha section in Leviticus 26 contains several repeated expressions, including, “If you walk contrary (bekeri) with Me.” According to an interpretation cited by Rashi, this refers to the sin of interpreting every event in life as an accident (mikreh). When something bad happens, it is often easy to write it off as an accident. This can minimize the impact of such an event, disregarding its greater implications for one’s life.

R. Steinsaltz goes on to list the catastrophic events that have occurred in our time – the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel – that seem to have made very little impression on most Jews. Assimilation is rampant; people don’t seem to care about being Jewish any more. Unfortunately, there are consequences for ignoring Gd’s messages:

If you walk contrary with Me and will not obey Me, I will go on smiting you … And if in spite of these things you will not be corrected unto Me, but walk contrary with Me … I in turn will smite you seven-fold for your sins… (26:21ff)

One who does not walk contrary is one who attaches meaning, importance, and significance to everything that happens around him. But learning a moral lesson regarding oneself and not automatically looking to someone else [e.g. to blame] is very uncommon.

The end result of this is complete estrangement from Gd:

But why should we care that the Shekhina has departed? Why does it matter precisely where Gd dwells? If He wants to live on the second floor, let Him live on the second floor; what does that have to do with me? This is the root of the problem: Man does not care about Gd, and so he is left only with the external aspect of everything.

I might add that the louder someone proclaims his love of Gd, the less likely it is that he cares about Gd at all. This is especially true of politicians, whose activities in the public sphere generally belie their pious pronouncements.

The question is, how do we get ourselves into such a predicament? It has always seemed to me that the Tochachahs of both Leviticus (our parashah) and Deuteronomy (parashat Ki Tavo) have an air of inevitability about them, as if Torah is telling us that this is what is going to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Now this cannot actually be the case, because everyone is given free will to be wholehearted with Gd or to “walk contrary” to him. Furthermore, whether we view the Tochachahs as a list of “punishments” for “sins,” or as the cosmos’ natural reaction to our incorrect, life-damaging actions, it offends our sense of justice if our suffering is just random natural events, and not a result of our choices. Shall not the Judge of all the world do justly? (Bereishit 18:25)

I’m not sure we can know the answer to this question any more than we know why the righteous appear to suffer. But let us consider why it is that we wind up walking “contrary” to Gd. Our lives have an inner dimension and an outer dimension. The inner dimension we call the “soul” – this is the part of our personality that strives for spiritual growth. The outer dimension is the body – this is what interacts with the material world, and was given to our soul to clothe it so that it can use the material world in a way that benefits it by allowing it to grow spiritually, and which also benefits the material world by infusing it with the divinity which is at the basis of the soul. In the same way, the material world itself is the outer expression of an inner, entirely spiritual reality.

The trouble is, in both the case of the individual and in the case of the cosmos, the outer reality obscures the inner one. On the individual side, our body’s desire for physical pleasure often overrides our spiritual sense of right and wrong, leading us to inappropriate actions. How many times have we said, “I know I shouldn’t do this, but…”? It isn’t just every so often either, is it? On the cosmic side, our tradition describes this obscuring phenomenon as “Gd is hiding His Face.” Our senses are focused on the outer, material crust of creation; we remain oblivious to the inner spiritual core of every form and phenomenon in creation. Perhaps we shouldn’t say that Gd is hiding – it’s just that we’ve become incapable of seeing Him, even though He’s in plain sight!

What we need to learn to do is to reverse the normal direction of our senses and our activity. We are always projecting ourselves in an outward direction, and this is perfectly good and normal and natural. But it has to be supported by some inner-directed activity as well. First, our mind has to be turned inward in order to experience its own essential, unbounded nature. Once we know ourselves to be this purely spiritual entity, we can turn our attention outward and begin perceiving the objects outside ourselves in their finer and finer values. Eventually our perceptions, like our mind, become established on the level of the unbounded, essentially spiritual nature at the basis of objective reality. Gd is no longer hiding behind a thick, impenetrable crust of physical existence. The physical existence is still there – nothing has been negated – but it is now evaluated in terms of its true divinity. I believe that this is truly what it means to walk “with” Gd, not contrary to Him.

Haftarah: Yirmiyah 16:19-17:14

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord; the Lord shall be his trust. For he shall be like a tree planted by the water, and by a rivulet spreads its roots, and will not see when heat comes, and its leaves shall be green, and in the year of drought will not be anxious, neither shall it cease from bearing fruit. (17:7-8)

The first verse appears in the liturgy (in the concluding part of the Shacharit service) and the second appears in Pirke Avot. There are a number of verses in this week’s haftarah that appear in the liturgy, so some of it may sound familiar as you read it.

What does it mean to “trust” in Gd? We are exhorted to “trust” in Gd, to “believe” in Gd – what does that really mean? We have an expression, “Seeing is believing.” What that means is that, in general, we should trust our senses, that our senses give us an accurate picture of the world around us. We know, however, that our senses have limitations. As we age, our senses generally become less acute (see the movie My Cousin Vinnie for a graphic example). There are certain physical limitations to our senses (for example, our eyes are limited by diffraction of light to a certain minimum resolution). And we have found that a person’s perceptions can be shaped by the ideas, categories and prejudices in our minds. If this is the case with the ordinary objects of perception, how on earth can we know or believe or trust in a Gd Whom we can never see, in Whom we dwell and Who we can never get outside of, never get a real perspective on?

I think the answer relates back to our discussion of the parashah. In order to “believe” in Gd, we need to “know” Gd (see Yeshaya 11:9). That means first knowing ourselves – that we are essentially infinite and unbounded, not limited to our bodies or our senses. Second, it means infusing this infinite value into our every perception, until Gd’s existence, Gd’s reality, becomes a self-evident proposition. Then we have not belief, but real knowledge, and nothing can throw that off.