May 24, 2003



Lev 25.29 to 26.46

By Fern Goldman


Boker tov!  (Today is a special day for me; it is yortzeit for my mother, who died 25 years ago. She tried to teach me right from wrong but unfortunately, I don’t think I was a very good pupil. So I dedicate this dvar to her, on this theme of right and wrong)


This week’s parsha is Behukotai, and is sometimes paired with last week’s parsha Behar. Behukotai means “my laws” and it concludes the book of Leviticus. Much of the parsha deals with blessings that will come to Israel for following in God’s ways, with some dark curses,  –the Prophetic warnings or Tochechot–for rejecting the Law.  Israel is invoked  to either do it right and receive the blessings associated with correct behaviour, or do it wrong and be cursed, even harmed, destroyed and the sins visited seven times upon subsequent generations (verse 28).


The parsha begins with enticing promises from Hashem, which we repeat every Shabbat: ‘If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments I will give you rains in their season, an the land shall yield her produce...I will give you peace in the land and none shall make you afraid...” But, if the people do not follow the commandments, Hashem will cause enemies to strike the Israelites. They will lose their food supply, cities will be laid waste and worst of all, lose the land itself and Israel be scattered amongst all other nations. Yet, even if matters should come to their worst conclusion, God still promises to to renew the Covenant made with “the ancients whom I freed from Egypt (verse 45). God essentially will never forsake Israel.


Why the need for such a dichotomy, a powerful system of right or wrong, black or white, one extreme pitted against the other? Would our ancestors  only respond to “ do it this way or else” , in the same way we treat young children ?  In our day and age, we seem to always challenge a dualistic view of two choices, right or wrong , a system that does not allow greys in between. Would it be fair to assume that  people back then also would challenge the community’s rules? On one hand  it’s certainly far easier to live a life structured on fear of punishment, especially from on high. On the other hand... it becomes crazy -making to be allowed a whole spectrum  of choices. If we can have a whole range of greys, a universe of options on how to behave, how do we choose our  moral values for behaving better as humans.? Perhaps having  only two paths from which to choose might force us to be more focused and in essence “clean up our act.?....

I live with somebody like this, someone who seems to need the structure and very clear guidelines of “do it right or the punishments will follow” (such as “do your homework or you don’t get to go to the party”) .Only today we call punishments “consequences” in the hope, however faint on some days, that people will develop nuance to their decision making, and learn to see there is a middle ground and a compromise. This is a journey we call “growing up”. It seems to take a very long time for this process to kick in with certain individuals!


I asked a learned friend about the severity of punishment in the Tochechot. (Thank you, Ian Kagedan, who taught Chumash for 12 years :) Ian proposed that at the time of writing of this Parshah, indeed the period that the entire Book of Leviticus was written,  people were very much LESS observant of laws and traditions than we are today. I n order to provide a moral compass, the Prophets of the era had to “raise the bar”. They created standards of behaviour that were high, but not  inaccessible or unattainable. These standards then could be seen as something to strive for in the journey to improve oneself, and the community over all. The rewards of self, and community improvement are great.. The other end of the behaviour spectrum, the Tochechot are graphic, visual creations, kind of like an infomercial, to invoke fear and avoidance of immoral actions..


So here we are, given a two-fold path in Behukotai. Choose to obey Hashem’s commandments, or live with destruction and death as a consequence of not living within the Law. I raise  this question: does having rules and commandments cut into our personal freedom? Not too long ago, my answer was a resounding yes. It was fashionable, a lifetime ago,  to  rebel against the conventions of society, to question authority, to change the world. But as we know, something has shifted. For me maybe it was becoming a parent, maybe it was getting co-opted by society, maybe it was simply getting older. I found that rather than me changing the world, the world has changed ME. Fortunately not exactly like Winston Smith in the novel 1984, who after a journey of torture and brainwashing had tears in his eyes because he devotedly came to LOVE  Big Brother!


Now I  admit I’ve come to see that rules do bring security and safety. Much as children  need structure, grownups feel grounded when the law is made clear on how we should treat each other, animals, and the environment . Commandments create a common language,  a safety net as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. In my case, I dare say it’s been a long and winding road to come to say what I just did. Part of me still doesn’t believe that this is where I‘ve come to!

Perhaps in having strong admonitions of what NOT to do, people can then choose what to obey, and what not. Some may choose to live every law to the letter, and others to varying degrees. So maybe the greys are “built-in”, after all?


 Now I ask another question: what are the blessings and curses of today? Will someone please tell me where they are written... from on high..with a roadmap of consequences?!!! There are days I wish for a simpler life, when there were prophets around to give some moral and ethical leadership in the name of Creator of the Universe.  It seems we have no moral compass in secular society, and we have many urgent problems. How to raise our children in a safe and caring environment, how to respect the planet, how to share resources more equitably, and how to do something so apparently simple but almost impossible to do: to love one’s neighbour as oneself.  Time and again I come  to impasses in the workplace. Suicidal teenagers bring us to the wall. At such times I sometimes dare to bring in the concept of a Higher Power. Aware that just as often, people look at me as if I really DO have horns, or more kindly, two heads, given the lack of a spiritual orientation in our daily lives.


Behukotai concludes ..chapter 27 verse 34, “These are the Commandments that Lord gave Moses for the people Israel on Mount Sinai. On page 757 of Etz Hayim, the commentary is made that not all the laws were literally given to Moses at Sinai. Sinai is not a geographical location alone, but is also a symbol of Israel’s awareness of having stood in the presence of God, and having come to understand what God is asking of the people. Whenever a person hears the commanding voice of God and commits oneself to live by that voice, that person can be considered to be “standing at Sinai”. This I find somewhat comforting. A moral compass, when found, can be portable. It is meant to be used now, on the planet, as we live and breathe and do.


The Haftarah for this week is from Jeremiah. Just as there is a dichotomy of right and wrong in the Torah  portion, the Haftarah also sets out the twofold path.  Jeremiah trusts in God, and paints a poetic image of those who follow in God’s ways:>Verse 8: “Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord..he shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a does not cease to yield fruit”


Sinners, on the other hand, rely on things that are futile and worthless .In abandoning God’s ways, these people will wither, when they “foresake the Fount of living waters”


Etz Hayim has a lovely way of knitting the parsha and the Haftarah together...and I think, bringing a shade of grey to the dichotomy issue. I quote from page 763: “No aspect of life is immune to Divine Judgement. Inner deception yields external results that destroy one’s life on the Land. Outward behaviour affects one’s inner strength and spiritual resiliency.” The texts affirm that having faith and trusting in the Divine will renew us, as individuals, and as a People.                    


If my mom is watching from above, and I think she is, she’d be laughing about what I said about the usefulness of having rules :)


 Shabbat Shalom!