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05/29/2019 08:32:17 AM


Sam Shnider

Parshat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) which we read this week, begins with one of the greatest theological riddles of the entire Torah: an account of the Blessings and Curses. God tells the People of Israel that if they observe the commandments and follow the laws, 
וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם וְנָתְנָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ יְבוּלָ֔הּ וְעֵ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה יִתֵּ֥ן פִּרְיֽוֹ׃
I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.

Thirteen blessings follow. On the other hand if they reject the laws, and spurn the commandments, 
אַף־אֲנִ֞י אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־זֹּ֣את לָכֶ֗ם וְהִפְקַדְתִּ֨י עֲלֵיכֶ֤ם בֶּֽהָלָה֙ אֶת־הַשַּׁחֶ֣פֶת וְאֶת־הַקַּדַּ֔חַת מְכַלּ֥וֹת עֵינַ֖יִם וּמְדִיבֹ֣ת נָ֑פֶשׁ וּזְרַעְתֶּ֤ם לָרִיק֙ זַרְעֲכֶ֔ם וַאֲכָלֻ֖הוּ אֹיְבֵיכֶֽם׃
I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it.

The description of the curses is so devastating, that it has become the custom in Jewish communities to read them in a whisper - a sign of mourning perhaps, or because we do not wish to invoke these curses or call them upon ourselves. 

It is not the curses that are other-worldly. The curses are not foreign to us. We have seen them in recent Jewish history. We see them from time to time all around us. But how are we supposed to understand the Torah’s message that these blessings and curses are somehow caused by our actions? 

I was listening to Amanda Eller’e interview about her 17 day ordeal in the Makawao forest. One of the things she said that affected me most strongly was that she had a major turning point when she decided, after five days, that it was not a “punishment.” She created her own sense of hope in the difficult circumstances she was facing, alone and starving in the forest, by approaching her adversity it as a spiritual journey. 

We gain insight into this portion of the Torah by distancing ourselves from the notion of punishment. The Torah’s message is one of empowerment rather than disempowerment. On the most basic level we are told that our actions influence our environment, and the key to that relationship is our relationship to the Divine. When we meditate on this, God speaks to us as to the nature of that relationship in our own lives. We may meditate on the natural order, the meaning of “rains on their seasons” or even meditate on the moral order, and what is meant by “laws,” and on the connection between moral and natural order in our own lives and the life of the entire world. What can we do to repair this order? 

Most importantly, we are not asked to give account for anyone else’s story, or to try to figure out the general rules of reward and punishment. We are not asked to look at someone else’s suffering and draw any conclusions. We are only asked to maintain hope, and deepen our own relationship to the One, who does not leave us even in our deepest darkest hour: 

וְאַף־גַּם־זֹ֠את בִּֽהְיוֹתָ֞ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ אֹֽיְבֵיהֶ֗ם לֹֽא־מְאַסְתִּ֤ים וְלֹֽא־גְעַלְתִּים֙ לְכַלֹּתָ֔ם לְהָפֵ֥ר בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ם כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם׃
Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the LORD am their God.

We are always granted this promise. That God remains with us, close by, even in our suffering. 

On a personal level, we reach insight in those moments when we reach rock bottom. It is in those moments that we realize the nature of the presence that has never left us. We do not easily reach an understanding of what led us to that point; but once we have felt it, it gives us strength, and it fills us with life each day of our lives. 

Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780