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Parashat Bechukotai 5779 — 06/01/2019

Parashat Bechukotai 5779 — 06/01/2019

Vayikra 26:3-27:34
Our parashah contains the first of two (long) passages of rebuke, called tochachah. The other is in Parashat Ki Tavo, towards the end of Deuteronomy. The placement of the second seems clear – Moshe Rabbeinu is close to his last days on earth, and he wants to fortify the people so that they will faithfully carry out their mission when faced with the new challenges of setting up a society that is sustained by their hard work, rather than by open miracles. I’ve wondered about the placement of this one. Perhaps the answer is that the people have received the Torah, built the Mishkan, and gotten the operating manual for the Mishkan and its various rituals. Now they are about to set out on their journey to the Land of Israel, which originally wasn’t supposed to have lasted for 40 years, and they need to be reminded of their obligations to Gd. In fact, we begin Bamidbar next week, where the narrative of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel resumes, after having been interrupted for a book and a half (from parashat Terumah, in Sefer Shemot, to where we are now). However, this is just my speculation and is peripheral to what Rabbi Goldin discusses.

What R. Goldin does discuss is the use of the word keri throughout the tochachah, which forms the core of our parashah. There are a number of different ways to understand this word, but most of them seem to derive from the root karah /”to happen.” In other words, it denotes happenstance, accident, randomness – the world’s proceeding without order or design. This kind of perspective is associated in Rabbinic thought with Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people, whom we are supposed to wipe out. It is often espoused nowadays by leading scientists, who claim that the universe is random and has no meaning; human life is nothing more than a particular configuration of molecules, here today and gone tomorrow. And of course, there is no Gd. (I should interject here that no scientist believes that there is no physical order in the world – the very basis of all science is that there are laws of nature that can be discovered. The argument is that there is no moral order in the world.)

R. Goldin quotes the Ohr haChaim (R. Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743, Morocco):

A number of other commentaries, including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ohr Hachaim, choose a related but different path. The term keri, these scholars maintain, describes a flawed world outlook that can lead to immeasurable sin. An individual who sees the world in a fashion of keri perceives no pattern to the events unfolding around him. In place of Divine Providence, this individual observes only random coincidence; and in place of punishment for sin, accidental misfortune. For such an individual, tshuva (return to the proper path) becomes increasingly unattainable. In a haphazard world governed by arbitrary forces, after all, there exists little incentive for change.’

Going a step further, the Ohr Hachaim perceives in Gd’s reaction “And then I [Gd], too, will walk with you with keri…”‘ – a carefully calibrated “measure for measure” response to the nation’s failing. If the people refuse to see a divinely ordained pattern in the world around them, Gd Will withdraw, making it even more difficult for them to perceive His presence. The punishments to follow will seem even more random, bearing no obvious connection to the nation’s sins. The people’s failure to recognize Gd’s imminence will thus prove frighteningly prophetic, for Gd will respond with “distance.”

What we seem to have here is a vicious cycle of sin and punishment specifically designed to make further sin more likely! Generally one reads that Gd’s punishments are “not really punishments, they’re correctives designed to return us to the proper path.” If this were not the case, it would be very hard to reconcile a Gd of love with a Gd who creates an imperfect creature and then beats him over the head for acting in an imperfect manner. In this case however, we are not dealing with a specific sin, but an entire failure of outlook. Although the tochachah speaks in the language of punishment, I believe we are seeing a basic principle of consciousness and perception at work here.

Apparently, to act / walk with keri means to dissociate the parts of life – the individual expressions of life, from the wholeness of life, the unified basis of all life. According to Torah, at the basis of life is a unified level of Being, transcendental to all boundaries, to all differences. The differences are simply the expressions of that unified level, in the same way that waves are the expressions of the unbounded ocean. If we consider carefully, we realize that the waves are not different or separate from the ocean – they are just the dynamic value that is inherent in the ocean itself. While on the surface the waves appear to be distinct, at the depths they are all expressions of one unified wholeness of life.

What happens when our perception is closed off to this reality is that we perceive ourselves as separate and unrelated to the wholeness of life. We then begin to act in what we perceive to be our own self-interest, whether or not we are damaging anything or anyone else. This action, contrary to the Torah’s prescription for our growth and evolution, causes stress and strain in the physical system and damages the soul, the subtle levels of our personality. This damage further prevents us from perceiving the wholeness that unites all the diverse surface values. Thus we are driven into the vicious cycle we noted above.

What is the solution? We need to turn our primary focus from difference to unity, and unity is perceived through the eyes of love. Any parent will tell you that the unity they feel with their children comes from the unconditional love they give them. Two lovers will say the same about one another. Gd feels that way about us, and Torah gives us mitzvot to culture that same kind of love of Gd. It’s just up to us to seize the opportunity!

Commentary by Steve Sufian

“Bechukotai” means “By My Decrees.”

Gd declares that if we read His Torah and do the mitzvahs – the right actions – commanded in It, we will be blessed wonderfully; if not, we will be cursed, and the curses will get worse until we listen. But nonetheless, Gd will not abandon us.

Our Fairfield congregation seems to doing mitzvahs because every time we congregate, I experience that each of us and all us radiates great joy, love, friendliness.

Our world, not just our congregation, seems to be doing better and better: Steven Pinker, researches the data and concludes that violence of all kinds has been decreasing since 1400 C.E.

As inspiring as this is, do people globally feel happy—a contemporary word that seems to mean what “blessed” means, in religious terms.

The Pursuit of mentions a number of different scientific questionnaires that seek to measure happiness and notes that wording and emphasis vary.

Their own quiz seems to focus on the common core to all the questionnaires; it considers such measures as: sharing, kindness, fulfillment in using one’s abilities to a greater purpose than simply personal achievement, participating in a spiritual group.

These actions are definitely the central focus of our religion, definitely seem to be very alive in our congregation and they seem to be the core of all religions. And they seem to be the taken-for-granted behaviors of everyday life; a reality that goes deeper and more lasting than the news we see in mass media.

Our world seems to be getting better, even good, at “loving the Lrd, thy Gd, with all thy heart, all thy soul, all thy might” and “loving thy neighbor as thyself [thy Self]. Whether we know anything about Torah or not, our hearts seem to be listening to Gd.

A very great blessing!
A very great blessing.
Baruch HaShem