May 22, 2008
Parshat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)
In Bechukotai, the word im (Hebrew for if) begins the Torah portion and appears a stunning 29 times. If inspires fantasy, longing and, sometimes, regret.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” celebrates that word’s challenge and promise:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son!
John Greenleaf Whittier captured the heartbreak of “if only”:
For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
Our Torah portion touches on all these aspects of if. It lays out choices and consequences before the children of Israel, providing both inspirational vision of success (if we follow the Torah) and frightening prophecy of exile (if we treat God’s commandments lightly).
This contrast is commonly understood as reward vs. punishment. But the Bible doesn’t just present blessings and curses; it teaches causality and responsibility—if A, then B.
Bechukotai offers lessons on the spiritual laws of the universe from the One who created the universe. A parent tells a child, “If you eat too much candy, you’ll get a tummy ache.” That statement neither legislates nor metes out stomach aches. It attempts to explain how the world and tummies work. God, our loving Parent, provides instruction (the literal meaning of Torah) to protect us and to keep us not just well but good.
Thus, if you let the land lie fallow as prescribed, food will be plentiful, and you will be secure (Leviticus 26:3-6).
But if you exploit land for immediate gain, “Then shall the land make up for its [missed] sabbatical years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies” (Leviticus 26:34).
This if/then structure comports with ancient Near Eastern documents, called execration texts, which spell out consequences for obedience and disobedience. Disproportionate space is given to negative consequences, perhaps because of the curious way we use if in our own heads.
Psychologists tell us that people are generally more motivated by the threat of loss than by rewards. This may explain why the Torah’s description of “blessings” uses the word if once, while the lengthier elaboration of “curses” requires seven ifs.
The words blessings and curses appear in quotes above because divine punishments, as much as rewards, are designed for our ultimate good and blessing. In contrast to other ancient texts, the Bible’s goal is not the Ruler’s benefit but the people’s.
Execration texts generally end with curses, but the Torah text ends with covenant. God is absolutely committed to disciplining us but will never destroy us. The underlying if in Bechukotai is: “Will God still be with us if…. ?” The answer is: Despite our sins and their consequences, there is nothing we could do to lose our future with God (Leviticus 26:44-45).
Of course, when we consider divine promises of reward and punishment, it’s not just a question of our losing a future with God, but potentially—God forbid—of God losing a future with us. Seeing the guilty prosper or the innocent suffer causes some people to question or even sever a relationship with God. Injustice is a deep and serious challenge to each of us, personally and theologically.
Yet, if individual reward and punishment were a 100 percent proposition, there would be no difference between self-interest and altruism. True moral freedom would be lost, and our sense of justice would remain unsatisfied.
The Bible delves into theodicy elsewhere, but this Torah portion doesn’t address God’s responsibility. It addresses ours. It doesn’t detail the individual’s rewards and blessings but the community’s. What are the consequences of our collective choices?
Over time, certain kinds of bad behavior bring their own punishment, through the type of society they create. And certain kinds of good behavior, which reflect and foster harmony with creation and Creator, yield their own reward.
The word if pushes us to look beyond the real and random suffering we meet to the vast array of choices we make. If urges us to contemplate our options, to consider the worth of our words and deeds, our selves and our society. It presses us, finally, to decide.
Sometimes people use if precisely to avoid deciding. We burrow into if, endlessly speculating in order to justify inaction or indifference. This tendency is parodied in the deliberately absurd idiom (Yiddish inflection mandatory): “If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a trolley.”
Bechukotai denounces attempts to cynically opt out of real if/then choices. It condemns Israel seven times with the expression lalechet (be)keri. From the root k.r.h. (happen or happenstance), it means to take casually, to be contrarian or to rebel. Embedded in the very wording of the Bible is the premise that we don’t just happen to be here. We are here for a purpose.
The choices before us and our responses are significant. There are dire consequences to taking God’s word lightly or to reflexively rebelling against it. We matter, and what we do matters.
In other words, the worst possible answer to “if / then” is “whatever.”
If is used in Bechukotai to put the responsibility squarely on us. Our collective future is contingent on whether we care enough and are conscious enough to make right choices. If not now, when?
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom (www.makom.org) and a frequent scholar-in-residence.