BECHUKOTAI - 19 May 2001
The Hebrew name for this section is Tokhecha or “warning” based on the major part of chapter XXVI (page 543) in which G-d conveys all the misfortunes that would befall the Israelites if they didn’t heed His commandments. It is interesting to note that whereas it only takes HaShem 13 lines to say, in a general way, what blessings would come our way if we are obedient, G-d devotes 30 lines (14 through 43) to describing, in great detail, the awful things.
All this is to teach us that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. But despite Hertz’s conviction that history has borne this out over the centuries, Kushner pointed out that, very often, “Bad things happen to good people,” or at least innocent people, including children; what then is the explanation? The problem was, of course, confronted by Job, and all of us have seen many examples. Kushner rejects, as we do, the notion expressed by the prophet Ezekial (chapter 18) that those afflicted by terrible diseases or misfortune may be only “seemingly” innocent or good, and that anyone who suffers a calamity must have deserved it.. That belief is repeated in other biblical writings such as Proverbs. Such could never be the case with a child, for example, and we would not worship a G-d who was capable of such a grave injustice. You will remember that Abraham, although imbued with an unshakable faith, asked G-d, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”
We grapple in vain for explanations and, stopping short of abandoning our belief in a just and merciful G-d, are forced to the conclusion that the world spins along pretty much without G-d’s intervention, at least these days, or, like Job, we have to admit that G-d may have reasons for doing what He does, but these reasons are unfathomable by the human mind. We pray, and many of us feel that HaShem listens, but perhaps we should not expect that the results will be anything more that the good feeling we have when someone we love, although unable to help us, listens and understands our troubles, and perhaps cries with us. What we definitely don’t need are so-called friends, like those of Job, who see our pain and then lecture us on the need to clean up our act and “reform.”
There is, of course, the explanations that we hear, most often from Christian or Moslem sources but also in Jewish theology, that divine reward and punishment with come in the next world if not in this one. In a folk song I know, a self-righteous boss’s answer to poor and exploited workers begging for an improvement in their miserable lives, is “You’ll get pie in the sky by and by.” The Torah says very little, if anything about the “hereafter.” There are scattered references to a soul being “cut off“ if an individual transgresses in some way, but little else. In fact, you’ll notice in this sedra that only material rewards are mentioned, not spiritual rewards. To our rabbis such as Nachmanides, spiritual rewards, including the hereafter, were so self-evident that the needn’t be mentioned. Material rewards and punishments, however, were not so obvious and had to be spelled out. Maimonides has a more direct explanation. He said that if anyone began to follow G-d’s laws, G-d would help them fulfill all the other laws by removing obstacles such as hunger, thirst, pain and war, and thus would smooth the way for this individual to merit the hereafter. Conversely, anyone who rejects some of his laws will find that it is almost impossible to carry out other laws because of these material punishments.
Robert Gordis in his book, “Jewish Ethics for a Lawless World,” confronts the enormous challenge that the Holocaust presents those who want to lead a Jewish life based on faith in Hashem. At the risk of oversimplifying the presentation, I will rephrase five points that have to be accepted in one form or another in order to “understand” and deal with the Holocaust and, by extension, the apparent or occasional triumph of evil over good. 1) Based on biblical writings and philosophy, we must reject despair and accept the “glory of life and the goodness of G-d.” Gordis gives a number of citations, from Genesis to The Psalms. 2) There is no need to deny evil in the world and, in fact, one must confront it. Like Abraham and Teviah, we should challenge G-d when we see evil, and we must work to overcome it and change conditions so that the evil can no longer exist. 3) There is an element of mystery in evil, a mystery that Job acknowledged, all the while asserting that there must be a moral order that has meaning and pattern, even though we may not be able to see it. 4) Humans have free will, stated on numerous occasions in the Torah, especially in Deuteronomy (e.g., 30:15; “I place before you life and the good, death and evil.”) 5) “The interdependence of mankind,” which is to say that we are the products of not only the society that we live in, but also all the societies, philosophies, and acts of those who came before us. The Holocaust did not occur “out of the blue;” it was part of a vast interconnected series of events and viewpoints that started with life itself. These five points allow us to rise to the challenges of the Holocaust, confront them, work to change the forces that permitted such a thing to happen, and take heart that life, especially an ethical life, is still worth living despite it.
The warnings and curses of chapter 26 of Bechukotai are so disturbing that they are read as a single lengthy block without interruption to get through them as quickly as possible, and it is only necessary to call up one person to “bless” this reading (since, unlike aliyot for other portions, it is not regarded to be a great honour). This is the second of three sets of blessings and curses in the Torah. The first one is in Exodus (23:20; page 319) which, like this one, follows a lengthy list of laws and rules, but unlike this one, contains mostly a list of the great things that would happen if the laws are obeyed faithfully. In Deuteronomy, chapter 28 (on page 865), however, the list of blessings take up 14 lines but a truly horrific list of curses goes on for 55 lines! Thus, the first admonition is very gentle, the second is more severe, and the final one, at the end of the Torah, is nothing less than terrifying.
Fortunately, because we are on the triennial cycle, we don’t read that part of Bechukotai at all. The section we will read today is Chapter XXVII (pages 547-550), which will conclude the book Vayikra (Leviticus). It deals with the valuation of various possessions and of the individuals themselves, and prescribes the appropriate tithing for each. With regard to individuals, it sounds like charging for admission to a movie: adults (20-60) pay most, students and seniors (over 60) pay less, and children pay less again. Interestingly, women are said to be “worth” less than men, which Hertz says is because they can’t work as hard. Ask a mother of three if that is so! In any event, all this tithing finally is reckoned on “ability to pay,” which is the common practice in Jewish congregations and probably all congregations.
Much of the section is devoted to the donation or sale of material possessions to the Temple or priests, or to private individuals, and then their value if they are to be redeemed, that is, bought back, and under what circumstances they would regain possession in the jubilee year. If, for example, cattle given to the priests are to be redeemed, 20% of its value should be added to the purchase price. I must admit that I do not understand this system of donations and redemptions; perhaps someone here can explain them to me and all of us. Plaut says that according to the Rabbis, tithes of animals and food actually remain in the possession of the giver, i.e., the farmer, who can eat them at a festive meal, or, perhaps (II Chronicles 31:6), bring them to the Temple as a sacred donation. Plaut himself says that these rules don’t seem to make sense because they are not mentioned elsewhere in the Torah and seem to be taken out of context.
On this somewhat unsatisfying note, I will end my comments.