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Parshiyot Behar-Bechukotai 5775 — 05/13/2015

Parshiyot Behar-Bechukotai 5775 — 05/13/2015

The parashah describes terrible calamities – disease, war, famine, and exile – that occur when the Jewish people abandon the Torah.  According to Talmudic tradition, a primary cause for punishment is one particular offense: judicial corruption.

As a punishment for delay in executing judgment, perversion of judgment, and neglect of Torah – sword and plunder increase, pestilence and famine ensue.  People eat, yet remain hungry and they eat their bread by weight. (Shabbat 33a)

I generally stay away from politics in these essays, because our political system and our life in society is simply a reflection of the collective consciousness of the members of society.  If there is a political problem, while we can, sometimes, deal with it on a political level, the most effective way to solve social problems is to raise the level of consciousness of the society, one person at a time.  However, I think in this case we can see some unsettling parallels to the Tochachah (passage of rebuke) in parashat Bechukotai in our current political situation, both national and international.

Over the past several years our courts, especially the Supreme Court, have systematically made it harder for individuals and groups to obtain redress in the legal system when they suffer abuse or exploitation at the hands of large corporations.  The rules for class-action lawsuits have been tightened to the point where getting certified as a class is extremely difficult, leaving each individual victim to try to recover a relatively small amount from a corporation with a massive legal department.  This, needless to say, does not often work.  The Torah tells us that the Flood was brought upon the earth due to hamas (usually translated violence), which the Rabbis defined as robbery.  If an apple vendor brought his wares to the market to sell, everyone would steal a minimal amount from him – less than he could demand in a court of law.  The poor man is left with no merchandise, no money and no recourse.

In the famous Citizens United case, and in the followup McCutcheon case, the Supreme Court essentially allowed corporations, wealthy citizens and their proxies to pour unlimited funds into elections, in the name of free speech.  This inability, or unwillingness, to distinguish between speech and bribery/extortion has led to a massive perversion of the electoral process, with our legislators in many cases abandoning all pretext of representing the people who “elected” them – they may as well wear corporate logos on their suits.  When coupled with a decades-long program of starving and denigrating public education, thereby reducing critical thinking skills in the masses of people, we are confronted with an electorate that can be fed any kind of Orwellian “prolefeed” and they will think, and vote, accordingly, even when their own interests are directly harmed.

The mechanism by which this corruption leads to the calamities in the tochachah is reasonably clear.  The most important factor in the success of a society is social cohesion.  The people of the society have to feel like they own the society, that it is their society, that they will be treated fairly by the courts, that the tax system is fair, that people will, by and large, relate to each other honestly and with integrity.  When this is not the case, when people are detached, to whatever extent, from their social matrix, mental and physical health suffers.  When a soldier is concerned that his wife and young children at home have to be on food stamps to try to get enough to eat, and he knows that if he is injured he will be at the mercy of a cynically underfunded, decrepit health care system, how motivated is he to give his all for the country.  All the mantras that have been drilled into him quickly come crashing down on the rocks of reality.  When politicians declare that having enough to eat and adequate health care are not rights, but simply commodities to be sold to the highest bidder, is it surprising that hunger is rampant in the richest country in the world?

What is to be done?  There is no shortage of groups fighting against the dominance of big money players in our political system, fighting industrial destruction of the environment, etc.  It is worthwhile to support these groups in my opinion.  But I think it is more important to identify the root cause of the corruption we see around us.  I believe that root cause of all the ills of the world is that we are attached to, addicted to, the physical world and its sensual pleasures.  It is perhaps natural that this be the case – after all, we were put into this world to infuse it with the infinite spiritual values that lie at its, and our, core.  But we can’t allow ourselves to wallow in this spiritual exile.  Our Torah gives us a lifestyle that allows us to transcend the boundaries of nature and experience the infinite, boundless nature of the ultimate reality.  We just need to make that our priority.  It is more blissful than any sensory experience could ever be, but it does take some discipline to get there.  If we want to avoid the consequences though, we really have no choice.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 1

Through ten utterances the world was created.  What does this teach us – couldn’t it have been created with one utterance?  Rather this is to exact payment from the wicked who destroy the world which was created through ten utterances, and to give rich reward to the righteous who sustain the world which was created through ten utterances.

Gd is Unity (see Rambam’s 2nd Principle of Faith), unique in essence, not created out of parts.  Gd is beyond time and number; to say the world was created with ten utterances is viewing it, I think, from our perspective, not from Gd’s.  In fact, what we see as a process of creation and evolution, must appear very different to Gd.  I was going to use the term “static,” in the sense of a 4-dimensional structure encompassing past, present and future, but I’m sure that that too is the wrong term – Gd is infinitely dynamic even while being unchanging and eternal.  So why ten utterances?  Maybe the Mishnah is telling us that Gd created the structure and dynamics of the universe with exquisite care and precision, and that our actions can affect that structure and those dynamics for better or worse.  An example: our Sages tell us that Gd allots each of us exactly the resources we need to carry out the specific tasks He has assigned us – that is, to fit into the structure of creation in perfect harmony with everything else in creation.  If we steal someone else’s property, we put the structure into a certain amount of disarray, and we “trouble” Gd, so to speak, to get that resource out of our hands and into the hands of the person who needs it.  This “trouble” and disarray we experience as suffering.  If we are in perfect harmony, on the other hand, we experience bliss – the bliss of the World to Come, even in this world.  The choice should be a no-brainer, right?!?!