May 17, 2001
Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)
Every Monday evening of the recently concluded semester at USC, I met with a diverse group of students in a residence hall lounge to view and discuss the "Decalogue" films created by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Each film in this justly praised series presents an unusual situation standing in oblique relationship to one of the Ten Commandments. Thus, a professor who regards rational calculation as ultimate truth loses his skating child to ice that, by all calculation, ought not to have broken; and a brutal, unmotivated killing is juxtaposed with the murderer's own death through capital punishment.
Like our rabbis, Kieslowski understood that biblical texts require continuing interpretation. He conveyed two ideas that seem incompatible: first, that standards of right and wrong are built into the universe, governing human life; and second, that human beings usually must search out those standards, much as his characters (and we viewers) glimpse a recurring angel-like figure in his films.
When the Torah portions Behar and Bechukotai are yoked together, as this year, we encounter diverse material framed at beginning and end by reference to God addressing the children of Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai. The first material encountered concerns shmitah -- the sabbatical year for agricultural land. Acknowledging possible disjunction between the framing introduction's grandeur and the nitty-gritty that follows, the rabbis formulate what becomes a paradigmatic question: "What are the sabbatical laws doing at Mount Sinai?"
Good reasons exist for rooting such laws at Mount Sinai, for their details aim at something large: creating an ideal society. Judaism takes seriously both the general phenomenon of being commanded and the crystallization of specific mitzvot. We rise when the Ten Commandments are recited in synagogue and often model the two tablets on the Holy Ark. But the early rabbis set us on a sure course by insisting that not simply those commandments but rather a whole comprehensive system is incumbent upon us.
Of course, the mitzvah system bears upon Jews affiliated with the various movements, Jews of different temperaments and backgrounds, in a spectrum of ways. All along the spectrum though, we take pride in two Jews having "three opinions" and also in our tradition's emphasis on right action. We are proud that behavior, not belief, stands at our Jewish core.
Essentially, we look at things much the way Kieslowski did. He discerned a moral order grounded in divinity, while also often finding it challenging to discern that order's clear outlines amidst the push and pull of life. Life is messy, things happen at once, and the situations in which we find ourselves don't precisely line up with Torah and Talmud. That's why we need rabbis and also artists: to embed the sparks of divine truth, the general principles and even specific commandments, in the living reality of our time and lives.
Faced with the modern world's complexity, some college students move toward a moral relativism in which anything goes. But most young and older people want to believe that truth and standards for right action exist. While some embrace scriptural literalism, many grope towards a middle way in which the commanding presence of God leaves room for human interpretation and choice. I myself feel sure that at Mount Sinai, our ancestors encountered that presence in a manner that echoes through Jewish and human history. I draw strength from that encounter and try to be faithful to both God and my own lights.
With Behar-Bechukotai, we end the Book of Leviticus, whose final words are "These are the commandments that Adonai commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mount Sinai." In shul on Shabbat morning, we will rise and call out in one voice to the Torah reader, "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek." And the reader echoes this call, assuring us that our attachment to God, Torah and the Jewish People will, indeed, see us through to the end.