You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Bechukotai.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(By My Rules)
LEVITICUS 26:3 – 27:34
This final portion of the Book of Leviticus consists of warnings and admonitions concerning the consequences of our disobedience against God’s Word.
ON THE SURFACE it seems that the book of Leviticus ends with a stern admonition. If you follow all these commandments that God has given you, then you will be rewarded; and if you do not, you will pay the price. If you are good, then life will go well for you; but if you are bad, you will bring suffering upon yourself.
When I look around at my world, and see good people suffering and people who have acted immorally enjoying the fruits of their crimes, I am sent to find the deeper meaning, the deeper blessing of Bechukotai.
When I open to the tone of the text, not just its content, a feeling of familiarity washes over me. I know these places. Bechukotai describes two different states of consciousness which may become the lens of perception that mediate our experiences of life’s gifts and challenges. I believe we experience Heaven and Hell right here on this Earth.
THE FIRST STATE that Bechukotai describes is what might be called “Heaven.” In this state we notice the miraculous change of the seasons and really taste the fruit of each moment. There is a sense of “enoughness” in whatever we have, and a feeling of ultimate safety, regardless of changing circumstance.
In our consciousness of Heaven, we are not ruled by fear. Thus we are not overwhelmed by whatever enemy or obstacle we encounter. In this state of consciousness there is a sense of spaciousness and possibility. The Torah awakens us to the possibility of constant grace.
As it says in Deuteronomy 11, “Then you and your children will live out on earth the Divine promise given to your ancestors to live heavenly days right here on this earth.”1
Once we fully experience this state of Heaven, it can become a seed that we carry within to remind us that the liberation from the slavery of Hell is always possible.
BECHUKOTAI GOES ON TO WARN US about the other state of consciousness we might call “Hell.” When we’re in the state of Hell, it seems that God and everyone else is against us. We are ruled by fear, and every challenge we face feels impossible. We are obsessed with a nagging feeling of lack and preoccupied with the sense that something is wrong.
Even when we eat, we are not satisfied. In this state of Hell, even the “sound of a driven leaf”2 will frighten us and send us running. Here, we feel like strangers, and life itself seems like enemy territory.
In Hell, anxiety causes us to be always on the defensive, and our uncircumcised heart, the heart that is layered over with armor, prevents us from knowing true joy or receiving the Divine Indwelling Presence.
THE BLESSING of Bechukotai comes as we begin to recognize these two states in our own experience. This recognition is the beginning of freedom from the tyranny of the Mind. We can learn that Heaven is our true nature, and when we feel lost in Hell we can remember that grace is offered to us and that it is only a matter of time until we find a path that leads us home.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
IT IS AN INCREDIBLY RADICAL REALIZATION when we discover that it is the inner state of consciousness, and not outer circumstance, that determines whether our lives are an expression of Heaven or Hell. Personally, this realization stands as the foremost challenge to my own ego, which has struggled for nearly half a century to manipulate my outer circumstances.
The fear-driven ego says, “If only I had these things, this job, that lover, a slimmer body, nicer clothes, a good teacher, friends who were more loyal to me, or more time… then, everything would be OK. The wisdom of my soul says, “I will find Heaven here regardless of circumstances.”
I HAVE SEEN SUCH WISDOM AT WORK in the heart of a friend who although suffering through the agonies of cancer, finds himself at long last at the center of a great love. I have seen it in the heart of a woman who is so poor that she barely has enough to eat, yet joyfully shares what little she has. There are those who by all objective measures seem to be suffering in the worst that Hell has to offer, yet they bear witness to the nobility of the human spirit by radiating a flame of Joy and Love that even great rivers cannot extinguish.
If it is true that only the inner circumstances matter, why do we struggle to change the world, to alleviate outer suffering, to bring peace, to heal the afflicted? The spiritual challenge of Bechukotai is to do this work not from fear or anger but from the radiant purity of our compassion. When we are rooted in Heaven consciousness, the fullness of our compassion overflows. It becomes our natural way of being in the world. When we have recognized our own Hell-states, we know the suffering of others. We understand what it’s like, so we can reach out and offer a vision of the truth of our inheritance. We can simply radiate that truth and our presence will help transform the world. Steeped in the consciousness of Heaven, it is impossible not to act from compassion.
I ONCE HAD A VERY POWERFUL DREAM in which I experienced the depths of Hell. In this dream, I was in both physical and emotional pain. I was depressed, exhausted and demoralized, and I decided to commit suicide. There was a woman who specialized in assisting people to kill themselves so I went to her for help. She held a pill in her hand and said, “I will give you this drug. It will definitely kill you, but first it will show you the meaning of Life.” As I sat before her, I was at first incredulous. “What do you mean?” I shouted. “It’ll show me the meaning of Life and then… I’ll die?” My astonishment turned to fury and then I became curious. I sat there and tried to imagine what the drug might do, what it would be like to know the meaning of Life, and then die. Something inside me stirred and I decided not to kill myself. I chose instead to live.
1 Reb Zalman’s translation
2 Leviticus 26:36
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
Wendy wrote: This was included here this year since this parsha comes the day before Lag B’omer.
From Reb David Seidenberg
Please also keep in mind that the day before Lag B’omer is the
anniversary of the beginning of the flood of Noah (according to one
Talmudic interpretation), and the day before Yom Yerushalayim is the
anniversary of the Rainbow covenant when they left the ark.
A Tale of Two Covenants 2010
This coming Monday, May 9th, is also the 27th of Iyyar—the date when
Noah’s family and the animals left the ark and received the rainbow
There is a special correlation between this week’s Torah portion and
the rainbow covenant of Noah’s time. And there is a foreboding
contrast between the rainbow covenant and what’s happened in the Gulf
of Mexico. The tension between these dynamic relationships in many
ways defines the predicament of our time.
Just as this week is the week we read about the central covenant of
the Torah encoded in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, it is also the
week when the anniversary of the rainbow covenant falls. It is no
random happenstance: the covenant represented by the Jubilee is in
many ways a response to the covenant with Noah and the animals.
How so? The covenant of Noah’s time—the first covenant recorded in the
Torah—includes the land and the animals as covenant partners with God
alongside the human family. This is also the case with the Jubilee
covenant: the land is promised her Sabbaths as a condition for the
Israelites to settle upon the land, while the people are required in
the Sabbatical year, when the land is resting, to open their fences to
allow the wild animals in to eat their fill.
The first condition—to let the land rest—is a fulfillment of the
promise in the rainbow covenant that God will no longer destroy the
land because of humanity: here God promises to exile humanity in order
to save the land from being destroyed. The second condition—allowing
the wild animals into the fields—is a tikkun for what happened after
the rainbow covenant: even though the animals were partners in God’s
covenantal promise not to destroy the earth, they afterwards became
fodder for the humans (“like green plants I give you them all”).
Instead, here, in the Sabbatical year, the humans are required to
allow their agriculture to go wild and to invite the wild animals to
share what grows. This is not only a tikkun for the permission granted
to human beings to eat animals. It is also a return to the Garden of
Eden, where animals and human beings shared the same food.
And the Gulf of Mexico? In the rainbow covenant God promised not to
destroy the Earth because of us, but God did not promise that we
wouldn’t destroy the Earth. As the oil laps at the shore and threatens
vast ecosystems, important food sources, and endangered species, we
must realize that God’s covenant is not enough to save us. The
iridescent colors reflected off an oil slick are like a twisted and
distorted rainbow. They remind us that we have reached a point where
we can undo God’s rainbow covenant at the expense or our own lives and
the lives of other creatures.
These are the worst of times, because the threat is that close and
that enormous. And these are the best of times, because we can wake up
to our potential for love and righteousness and create a sustainable
world, a world that reflects the rainbow covenant as it was meant to
be: a promise to honor and cherish all beings, as God does, and so to
act in God’s image.
Then, to quote a medieval prayer (from Pri Eitz Hadar), may we be
privileged to see “the whole return to its original strength…and to
see the rainbow, joyful and beautified with his colors.” Yashuv hakol
l’eitano ha rishon, v’niratah hakeshet, sas umitpa’er b’govanin.
–Reb David Seidenberg
If you walk in My statutes (Leviticus 26:3)
The word chok (“statute” or “decree”), which gives the Parshah of Bechukotai its name, literally means “engraved”.
The Torah comes in two forms: written and engraved. On the last day of his life, Moses inscribed the Torah on parchment scrolls. But this written Torah was preceded by an engraved Torah: the Divine law was first given to us encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, which were etched by the hand of G-d in two tablets of stone.
When something is written, the substance of the letters that express it–the ink–remains a separate entity from the substance upon which they have been set–the parchment. On the other hand, letters engraved in stone are forged in it: the words are stone and the stone is words.
By the same token, there is an aspect of Torah that is “inked” on our soul: we understand it, our emotions are roused by it; it becomes our “lifestyle” or even our “personality”; but it remains something additional to ourselves. But there is a dimension of Torah that is chok, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with G-d that is of the very essence of the Jewish soul.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
Even when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away (26:44)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Come and see how beloved are Israel in the sight of G-d, in that to every place to which they were exiled the Shechinah (Divine Presence) went with them. They were exiled to Egypt and the Shechinah was with them, as it says, “Did I reveal myself unto the house of your father when they were in Egypt” (I Samuel 2:27). They were exiled to Babylon, and the Shechinah was with them, as it says, “For your sake I was sent to Babylon” (Isaiah 43:14). And when they will be redeemed in the future, the Shechinah will be with them, as it says, “Then the L-rd your G-d will return with your captivity” (Deuteronomy 30:3)
(Talmud, Megillah 29a)
He shall not exchange it nor substitute another for it (27:33)
Every person was born to a mission in life that is distinctly, uniquely and exclusively their own. No one–not even the greatest of souls–can take his or her place. No person who ever lived or who ever will live can fulfill that particular aspect of G-d’s purpose in creation in his stead.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
From Rabbi Duhan Kaplan
This is a link to Reb Laura’s commentary on Bechukotai. I always enjoy the photographs that are included in her teachings.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Bechukosai
Rav DovBer Pinson
Interpreting all of Life as Blessing
This week’s Torah reading begins with the words; “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments…. I will give your rains in their time… But if you do not… I will order upon you…hopeless longing and depression. You will sow your seed in vain.” (26; 3-16)
Essentially the Torah reading is about blessings and curses.
What is a blessing and what is a curse?
On a deep level, a blessing is something that is giving, connecting and is purposeful.
A curse, on the other hand, is something that withholds, separates and lacks apparent meaning.
On a physical plane, blessing can be described as ‘a giving light’, and curse as a ‘closed off vessel.’
A precious child that is sleeping on you will feel less than his 20 pounds, a stranger who falls asleep on your shoulder midflight – will feel much heavier to you than the few pounds that he is imposing on you.
The more ‘light’ connectivity, the less ‘vessel’ weight.
A woman in labor who is deeply connected to the idea of the baby that she is bringing into the world, will feel less pain than a less intense but meaningless pain experienced by another. Since there is more connection with the pain of birth, and the blessings are obvious, there is less pain, while a pain that feels purposeless will hurt more.
Something that occurs in our lives that seems purposeless feels like a curse. We cannot connect to its meaning, or process it, we remain in a state of absorbing, as it were.
When the hebrew alphabet is sequenced in order, such as in the verses that speak of the blessings, which start with the first letter – ‘Aleph’ and ends with the final letter ‘Taf’, it is a sign of blessings. The verse that speaks of the curses begins with a lower letter and ends with the higher letter.
The twenty –two letters are grouped into pairs, each two letters being a group. The first letter in each pair is the Mashpia/giver and the second letter of the pair is the Mekabel/receiver. Aleph, for example is the “giving” letter, and the Bet is the “receiving.” Yet, interestingly and seemingly paradoxically, in each group the ‘giving’ letter is open to the ‘receiving’ letter, whereas the ‘receiving’ letter is always facing with its back to the ‘giving’ letter, and open to the next pair, instead of facing each other.
This concept reflects the very foundational idea that each letter receives from the letter before it, and subsequently turns around and gives to the lower. So initially, the ‘receiving’ letter of the pair is open to the previous letter, which is the ‘giving’ letter, and then turns towards the lower in an act of giving. The receiver of the higher becomes the giver to the lower.
The letters of the hebrew Alpha Bet are transmitters of energy, they are the metaphysical wavelengths upon which the Divine ‘vibrations of creation’ travel. When the flow is correct and aligned, as in; from ‘above/within’ to ‘below/without,’ the movement is the ‘giver’ to the ‘receiver’ and ‘receiver’ turns and becomes a ‘giver’ until the divine sustaining energy reaches us, and nurtures and nourishes the physical plane of existence.
This is the course of blessings. Reality is presented to us and we understand the link, we are fully aware of the source of our blessings (from the One Above) and towards what purpose we have received them, ie; what we are meant to do with our blessings. We receive life, and the gifts we receive we can share with others.
Occasionally though, the transmitters of Divine life flow (the letters, as it were) are preoccupied with absorbing from Above and in the midst of receiving the movement of Divine flow stops. Their back is facing us, and we are left in darkness. This leaves us feeling empty and unconnected. Much as a closed vessel, we are not perceiving light, or meaning and purpose.
When this occurs we perceive life as negative, this is to us, a curse.
And yet, from another vantage point, if we can connect to what is happening when this is occurring, we are in truth feeling absence because that which we are receiving is still in the midst of absorbing from Above, and the revealing of that ‘blessing’ has not yet reached us. The blessing is so large and deep that the transmission of it is delayed and not easily relayed to us.
THE WEEK’S ENERGY
Interpreting All of Life as Blessing.
The energy this week imbues us with the ability to connect with the blessings in our lives.
We can observe and unpack the blessings we receive, finding meaning and purpose, connections and openings that at first may have felt like curses when they occurred.
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe would serve as the public reader of the Torah every week. One year he was out of town on this particular Shabbat, and another person read the Torah. When the reader reached the point in the reading that speaks of the ‘curses,’ The Rebbe’s son, Reb DovBer, fainted, and remained ill for quite some time. He explained that his fainting and illness were a reaction to hearing the curses that were read. But he heard this reading, read by his father, once a year his entire life – what happened this year? He explained to the Chassidim – “when my Father reads this Torah portion, I only hear blessings.”
May the energy of this week’s reading imbue us with the ability to see all the events that occur in our lives as the blessings that they truly are, and with it, the ability to find meaning and purpose in everything that we receive.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
If [Im] you follow my laws (Bechukotai)
Hkk the root
The kind of laws that are beyond nature so to speak
These are the laws of G*d
The consequences for not walking by them?
Thatʼs the verb — walking — [Leviticus 26:3]
The consequences for not walking by them
Are worldly catastrophic
The rains will not fall in their seasons
The earth will crack
It will get hot everywhere
The poles will melt
And we may not be saved
Because we violated the
Secret Hidden contract
Between human being-li-ness
The world broke apart
And we had been warned.
But if we do
If we honor and walk and keep and protect
Then nature will respond with order
We will be grateful for keeping this mysterious law of G*d
Familiar to everyone on the planet
Though none of us can say just What
That law is.
We know the world is cracked
We donʼt agree
C  D [1/2] E flat  F
Nahawand is found in Aleppo’s Islamic and Jewish communities,
Closest to the western minor.
A maqam is a musical figure
James Stone Goodman
From Rav Kook
Bechukotai: Prophetic Letters
Five Double Letters
Of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, five are called ‘double letters,’ as they take on a different form when appearing at the end of a word. The five letters are Mem, Nun, Tzadi, Pay, and Chaf. When placed together as one word, they spell M-N-Tz-P-Ch.
According to Talmudic tradition (Shabbat 104a), the dual form of these letters goes back to the prophets. The abbreviation M-N-Tz-P-Ch can be read as Min Tzophim — ‘from the prophets.’
From the Prophets
This claim — that the special form of these letters originated with the prophets — needs clarification. The Torah of Moses is complete and whole in itself. Even a prophet is not allowed to add or invent a new mitzvah. The Torah explicitly states,
“These are the decrees, laws and codes that God set between Himself and Israel at Mount Sinai, through the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:46).
The phrase ‘ These are the decrees’ indicates that only the decrees that Moses set down in the Torah are in fact between God and Israel. How could the prophets change the Torah by adding new shapes of letters?
The Talmud explains that the prophets did not actually introduce anything new. There always existed two ways to write these five letters. With the passage of time, however, it was forgotten which shape belongs at the end of the word, and which at the beginning and middle. The prophets did not devise the two forms; they merely recovered the lost knowledge of which letterform belongs at the end of the word.
Why Two Forms?
Still, we need to understand: why do these letters have dual forms? What is the significance of their relative position in the word? And why were the prophets (and not the sages or the grammarians) the ones who restored this knowledge?
Letters are more than just elements of speech. They are the building blocks of creation. The Sages taught, “The universe was created with ten utterances” (Avot 5:1). Each letter in the alphabet represents a fundamental force in the world.
Rav Kook explained that the ‘final forms’ — the shape that these letters take at the end of words — are the holiest. The final forms most accurately portray the sublime essence of each letter, fully expressing its ultimate purpose. To better understand this statement, we must analyze the morphological differences between the two forms of these letters.
With four of the letters — Nun, Tzadi, Pay, Chaf — the regular form is smaller and more cramped. The ‘leg’ of the letter is constrained and bent upwards. The form appearing at the end of the word, on the other hand, allows the ‘leg’ to stretch and extend itself fully. It is the final form that truly expresses the full content and power of these letters.
The two shapes of the letter Mem are distinguished in a different fashion. The regular Mem has a small opening at the bottom. It is called the Mem Petuchah, the Open Mem. It is open and revealed to all.
The final Mem is closed off on all sides. It is called the Mem Setumah, the Sealed Mem. Or perhaps — the Esoteric Mem. This form of Mem is more sublime than the regular Open Mem. Thus, the holiest written object, the stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments, contained only Sealed Mems, with the center part of the Mem hanging miraculously in place. The final Mem is closed off and concealed. It guards its inner secret, which due to its profound holiness may not be revealed to all.
Why is the more elevated form used at the end of the word? A hidden light appears at the ultimate vision of every noble matter. The hidden light of the M-N-Tz-P-Ch letters belongs to the end. The beginning and middle appearances of these letters are open and revealed. Their light steadily increases, until it brings us to the final, sublime conclusion.
The prophets are called tzofim, visionaries, as they were blessed with prophetic vision. Their greatness was that they could perceive the final outcome while still living in a flawed present. Understandably, it was these tzofim who sensed that the more elevated letterforms belong at the end.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 221-223. Adapted from Rosh Millin pp. 35-36; Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 247-249.)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Bechukosai: The Kabbala of Curses
Torah Reading for Week of May 15-21, 2011
“The Sounds of Silence”
By Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud
Several decades ago a Carnegie Hall piano recital premiered a strange composition by John Cage. The pianist raised his hands over the keyboard, sat immobile for a full three minutes, then lowered his hands and rose to thunderous applause.
Composer Cage explained the matter to puzzled reporters, “Music is composed of two elements, notes and rests. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have written music made entirely of notes, so I composed one piece entirely of rests.”
To be sure, most of us would probably not care to sit through an entire concert of silent musical composition, but is it not true that silences can be every bit as effective as sounds?
This concept is exemplified in our Torah portion of Behukotai. Behukotai contains horrific descriptions of human tragedy, and presents us with a terrifying litany of curses and maledictions, all of which are read publicly from the Torah scroll.
But how are they read? Not loudly, distinctly or slowly, but rather in a hurried, barely audible whisper…as if to say: the ultimate horrors in life are indescribable in words, only silences can adequately portray them.
Indeed, there is a remarkable eloquence to silence.
Both in the context of Talmudic law and Anglo-Saxon law, “Silence implies consent.” (Shtikah k’hodaya dami)
The eloquence of silence often greets the peak joyful experiences in our lives…the magic of the chuppah moment, the miracle of child birth, the majestic panorama of snow-capped mountain ranges. Can one possibly find proper words with which to capture these encounters?
Nevertheless, many of us experience a sense of discomfiture with silence, do we not? We desperately need to wallow in verbiage.
The Talmud (Berakhot 33b) records that a prayer leader once elaborated lengthily on the first passage of the Amidah. He described G-d as “The great, mighty, awe-inspiring, majestic, powerful, terrifying, strong, fearless, sure and honored…” Rabbi Hanina later inquired of him, “Do you think that you have exhausted G-d’s praises with your dozen adjectives? It is as if a king owned a million gold coins and you praised him for owning one hundred. Your very praise in an insult! The only reason that we call G-d ‘great, mighty and awe-inspiring’ is because Moses used these adjectives in the Torah. Were it not for his precedent, we would say nothing at all”.
The response of silence to the presence of G-d is reflected in the old Buddhist proverb, “Those who know, do not speak, and those who speak, do not know”. It is also manifested in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of Jewish prayer: “Our liturgy is the highest form of silence”.
There is good evidence that we Americans are not very comfortable with silence. Perhaps that is the reason that the radio incessantly plays in our cars and the television plays in our homes day and night whether or not we are watching.
Too bad! In avoiding silence we deprive ourselves both of deeper relationships with one another as well as a deeper relationship with G-d. The sounds of silence can be both eloquent and sacred sounds to experience.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Mitzvot, parenting, and “preparing the pot”
19 May 2011
In our coffee shop Torah study circle this week, we studied the commentary of the Ishbitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Isbitza) on this week’s portion, Bechukkotai. The Torah portion begins, “If you walk in the ways of My chukot (statutes), and you keep My mitzvot, and you do them…”
In one of his teachings on this verse, the Ishbitzer notes that the way of God is not like the way of humanity. A person first prepares the pot on the fire, and then pours water into it. If I am planning to do a thing, I imagine it and plan out my actions — that’s “preparing the pot.” And then when I actually do the action, I “receive the water.” Not so, says the Ishbitzer, with God… and not so with God’s ways. God first pours the water, and then prepares the pot. And we’re meant to do the same.
When it comes to mitzvot, we’re meant to open ourselves to them and to do them: not according to our own understanding or our own plans but according to God’s. Pour the water — do the mitzvot — and then God will “prepare the pot,” e.g. give us the spiritual benefit of having done the action. If we take the leap of doing the mitzvot, then God will make us ready to do them. It’s an inversion of how we usually think about things.
A chok is a commandment which doesn’t necessarily make intellectual sense, a mitzvah which we do not because the reason resonates for us but because the discipline of doing the mitzvah shapes us. Reading the Ishbitzer, this morning, I found myself thinking about mitzvot and discipline in terms of parenthood.
Right now my most constant daily practice is parenting my toddler. And unlike the other practices in my life — my aspirations of daily prayer, e.g. — this one is non-negotiable. I can’t wake up in the morning and think, “hmm, I’m not sure I feel like getting out of bed now; I’ll be a mother later.” I took on the practice of parenting; I don’t get to choose now to do it or not to do it.
I took on parenting without full knowledge of what it was going to be like or how it would change me. Sure, Ethan and I did our best to anticipate parenthood; to make plans, to purchase a crib, to dream about who our son might become. But at a certain point, we had to take the leap of entering into the experience, even though we couldn’t predict all that it would entail. We couldn’t predict how it would shape our lives, how it might change us, or what it would mean. In the Ishbitzer’s terms, we poured the water, trusting that God would “prepare the pot” and create a container to hold us in this new adventure.
Some of the things I do as a parent bring me immediate joy. Some of them make sense to me. I knew I would enjoy them, and I do. And some of the things I do as a parent are difficult; they challenge my autonomy; they aren’t always fun… but I’ve committed to doing them, and that commitment changes me, and it brings me gifts I couldn’t have imagined.
Mitzvot work that way too. They’re a discipline. Some of them are enjoyable in and of themselves; some of them challenge me. But I have to commit to doing them in order to find out who they’re going to help me become.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Spiritual Interfaces: Restfulness & Vigilance (5772/2012)
Talmud identifies seven heavens. The heavens are identified by Hebrew names, and described by Biblical verses. Each heaven offers a different point of access to God, i.e., a different spiritual experience: a new day dawning, the starry sky, spiritual nourishment, a formal prayer-space, music, storms, and justice.
Torah suggests that some people find God in cycles of seven. On the seventh day, God rested and “souled” (Parshat Ki Tisa). In the seventh year, farmers are instructed to leave their fields fallow, and let God use them to provide food for all in need (Parshat Re’eh). After the seventh cycle of the seventh year, freedom is called for everyone enslaved by debt; all return to the economic equality they enjoy in the sight of God (Parshat Behar). The number seven signals a time to rest and let go.
The practice of Sefirat Ha’Omer involves observing our inner spiritual processes seven days a week for seven weeks, without a rest. True, week seven if for observing Shechinah, God’s indwelling Presence, in our own consciousness, so it is a week to enjoy the fruits of purposeful spiritual development. But it is a week of mindfulness nonetheless.
Does this suggest that at least one “heaven” has no cycle of rest – that if we hope to meet God through the practice of mindfulness, we can never pause? That if we lose touch, even briefly, we are at risk of anxiety, depression and self-destruction (Parshat Bechukotai)? Or do we need to recognize that mindfulness has its own ebb and flow, responding to individual consciousness and circumstances? Perhaps even the most vigilant among us can recognize it is human to rest and let go, forgive ourselves, make amends, and move on.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Behar-Behukotai
May 4, 2013 / 24 Iyar 5773
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
Is ‘Your City’ in India? In Africa?
On the East Coast of the U.S.?
Yerushalayim or Dimona?
Torah Reading: Leviticus 25:1-27:34
Maftir Reading: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Years ago I was invited to a conference that I couldn’t attend. None-the-less, the question I was requested to address has lingered on in my consciousness. It is a Torah portion such as ours this Shabbat that reclaims the question’s position in the forefront of my mind.
I was asked to address the notion of “Eco-Halakha.” To be honest, I still don’t have clarity that I’m comfortable addressing this concept, and how it differentiates itself from other forms of halakha. Regardless, at the time, I felt that I had an example that would support this elusive notion.
When dealing with issues of tzedaka (‘charity’ is a sad translation for this beautiful word) one source most commonly quoted (and I see those of you who are rolling your eyes) is the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) and his eight levels of giving tzedaka (Gifts to the Poor, 10:7-14). More often than not the Rambam is taught in contrast to the story of Mar Ukva and his wife – Mr.and Mrs. Ukva, as I like to think of them – as appears in the Babylonian Talmud (K’tubot 67b). The Rambam ranks anonymous giving as higher form of offering. The Talmud, in contrast, tells of a story in which Mr. and Mrs. Ukva hide in an oven one day so that the poor that they were bringing offerings to wouldn’t see them, and hence identify them as the source of their charity. While hiding together, Mr. Ukva’s feet begin to singe, and his wife’s don’t. When he questions her why she has merited such protection, she replies that in juxtaposition to her husband who gives anonymously, she actually hosts the poor in her home and feeds them face-to-face.
While I believe that I have just offered you a wonderful class plan, I’m actually more interested in how, in the first of the eight levels, the Ramban speaks of creating job opportunities, entering into partnerships and granting gifts (as are exchanged among equals). While in the seven lower rungs we encounter an “Ani” (a poor person), in the highest level we encounter the phrase “Yisrael sh’mach” (an Israelite that is falling into poverty). This verb MaCH, stumbling, falling, is identical to the description we have in our Torah portion: “v’chi YA’MOOCH achi’cha” (when your brother falls, stumbles, into poverty).
The challenge that the Rambam is presenting us with is to feel responsible to someone even before they become poor! When they are still “Yisrael” and not “Ani”! – To be aware of the needs of the members of our communities before they fall into a state of need. This may be a friend that you could offer some business advice to when in the midst of a friendly conversation it becomes clear to you that they are walking down a failing path in their business. It could, perhaps, be to “go into business with them” as a means of helping them financially establishing themselves. It may be to make sure to support your local cleaner by publicly mentioning his name whenever you have an opportunity, or perhaps wearing your skirt only twice instead of three times before bringing it in again for cleaning. We have ample opportunities to maintain people’s dignity in a manner that keeps them within the category of “Yisrael”.
So what does this have to do with the conference panel of Eco-Halakha? When pondering what could be an example of this in my life, I was drawn to the concept of “the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a). But who are the “poor of my town” in the West L.A. neighborhood that I live in right now?
This is where I’m challenged. I could claim, for example, that as an Israeli any Israeli cause will be the first to receive my support. That Israel is indeed “the poor of my city.” Perhaps, I should say that the members of the synagogue that I pray in on a regular basis are the “poor of my city” and take precedence over another Jewish cause, whether local or national. Or, perhaps, those that live on my street are even closer than them, and hence my obligation is to my immediate neighbors even before the members of the synagogue? (I already know I have to apologize to the rabbi of my synagogue for suggesting to compromise my giving to the synagogue.) But then, I turn on “The News” for a moment, or go online for two moments, and people from across the world – people that we don’t share a common language, life or religion – are sitting in my living room!
There are people that we share our membership to the same religious institution, but I have no idea who they are other than seeing their name on the synagogue roster. I have neighbors that have lived in the five-story building across the street from me for the last twelve years. These neighbors take the elevator down to their garage and drive out of their building, leaving themselves nameless and faceless to me forever, even though I take pleasure of their wind chimes on their third floor terrace!
And then, as I suggested, there are those whose last name is ‘Katrina’ or ‘Sandy’. Some carry a last name of ‘Rape in India’ or ‘Bombing in Boston’ and they have names and faces. They have a story that I can share with you, and a medical record that I can recite. As they visit my living room I touch my legs, knowing that what separates us is that I get to go to sleep with the legs I woke up with earlier this morning. I have seen their tears and I have felt their despair. For some I have witnessed their strength and determination. So how can it be that they are not my personal ‘City’? How can it be that those I know so intimately do not take precedence over those I share a space on a membership roster, or a citizen poll, or municipal sewage, but will remain faceless forever?
Yes, perhaps it is time to pick up the phone and acquaint yourself with someone on that synagogue roster, or knock on a neighbor’s door and thank them for the beauty of their chimes. And perhaps it is time to embrace our lives that are marked by ever-growing accountability and responsibility.
As Shabbat embraces us, who are those that we, in our lives, embrace as part of our unique ‘cities’?
From American Jewish World Service
Guy Izhak Austrian
Parashat Behar-Bechukotai includes some of the Torah’s most haunting verses, in which God warns the people about the calamities that will result from failure to live a life centered on God and Torah. Among these, God warns:
I will set My face against you; you will be routed by your enemies and dominated by those who hate you; you shall flee though there is no pursuer of you (v’ein rodef etchem).1
This verse chills us with its terse depiction of physical violence accompanied by psychological terror. But the verse also contains an enigma: If we are being routed by our enemies, then how can it be that “there is no pursuer”? Aren’t our enemies pursuing us? Apparently, then, this pursuer must be something else entirely.
The early Rabbis noticed that the verse refers both to “your enemies” and “those who hate you,” and suggested a distinction: the enemies are external to us, while the haters are internal to the community, “drawn from among you and within you.” In the language of the midrash (no less chilling than the verse itself): “While your enemies surround you from outside, death will kill you from within.”2
This midrash does not explain the identity of the pursuer, but if the pursuer is not an external enemy, then perhaps, like the haters, it is internal. If so, then I want to suggest a different reading of our verse’s crucial phrase. Rather than “though there is no pursuer of you (v’ein rodef etchem),” it can be translated instead: “because there is no pursuer among you.”3
And who or what is this phantom pursuer? I suggest that it is not an internal enemy but an internal ally that is missing; not the rodef who pursues to kill,4 but the rodef shalom, the pursuer of peace. In other words: we will flee before our enemies and be dominated by our haters, because among us, there is no one with the courage to be a rodef shalom.
The rodef shalom first appears in Hillel’s famous statement in Pirkei Avot: “Be among the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace (ohev shalom) and a pursuer of peace (rodef shalom); a lover of all people, bringing them closer to the Torah.”5 A few centuries later, another rabbinic text elaborates on Hillel’s words:
How to be a rodef shalom? The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one. If a person sits in his/her place and is silent, how can s/he pursue peace among people, between each and every one?! Rather, one should go out from one’s own place and go searching in the world and pursue peace among people.6
This forceful rabbinic teaching urges each of us to be a rodef shalom, to leave our homes and comfort zones and come face to face with others. We can hear the Rabbis’ indignant rebuke: Get off the couch! Stop reading news magazines about the world’s problems! Put yourself out there in the real world and interact with real human beings!
But what then? What is the shalom that we should pursue? This midrash doesn’t tell us that. True peace will look different in every context, and we are not called upon to go around imposing solutions on others. The midrash doesn’t even promise that we will find or achieve shalom. After all, Aaron is called ohev shalom and rodef shalom—a lover and pursuer of peace; but not oseh shalom—not a maker of peace.
Yet the midrash does teach us that in order to pursue shalom we need to look beyond ourselves. Shalom isn’t easy or simple. We don’t know enough about shalom to begin to make it, and merely plumbing our own souls will not reveal all that we need to know. We have so much to learn, and we often need to learn it from others.
Let this be a kavannah for those of us fortunate to travel to developing countries, particularly if we aim to volunteer and “do good” there. Let us not expect to arrive and save the day by making peace. Instead, let us listen and learn from others about what shalom would look like for them and about how they themselves pursue it. As our parshah suggests, there are powerful forces in the world that are the enemies of peace—pursuing war, hate and suffering. Let us learn to be equally powerful, each and every one of us a rodef shalom.
1 Leviticus 26:17.
2 Torat Kohanim (Sifra) on Bechukotai, 2:4:5.
3 My re-translation depends on a few factors. First, the word rodef can be a present-tense verb (thus, “none pursues”) or a noun (“there is no pursuer”). Second, the prefix “v” (the letter vav) can carry different meanings in context. Third, the word etchem (2nd person plural) can be the direct object of a preceding verb (“no one pursues you”) or a preposition (“with you” or “among you”).
4 For the source of the halakhic notion of the rodef, one who pursues to kill or rape another person, see Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:7.
5 Mishnah Avot 1:12.
6 Avot d’Rabbi Natan, version A, ch. 12 (ca. 4th c. or later) This translation follows the text compiled by the Vilna Gaon. But many printed editions read “among Jews (yisrael)” instead of “among people (b’nei adam).”
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Some thoughts on parshat Bechukotai
“What are the curses teaching us?”
What is the most important point of this week’s Torah portion? You might miss the forest for the trees if you get stuck in the midst of all the curses described in Lev 26 and the vows in Lev 27. But the very answer to that question is embedded in those blessings and curses.
Here’s why it’s confusing: When the blessings and the curses are each introduced, it sounds like they come upon us because of all the commandments, and that all the commandments are equally important:
For the blessings, we read: If you will walk in my statutes (Bechukotai) and watch over my commandments and do them, then I will give your rains in their season and the land will give her produce y’vulah and the tree of the field his fruit…and you will dwell securely (lavetach) in your land… (26:3-5)
And for the curses, we read: And if you will not listen to Me and you will not do all these commandments, and if you will despise my statutes…to not do all my commandments, to break away my covenant, even so will I do this to you…I will set my face against you… (26:14-17)
But the Torah makes clear what the most important commandment is in this same section:
I will desolate the land. . . then the land will enjoy (tirtzeh) her Sabbaths…All the days of her desolation she will rest what she didn’t rest in your Sabbaths when you were dwelling on her. (26:34-35)
It’s the commandment to give the land rest, through the observance of Shmitah (Sabbatical) years, years of release, every seventh year, when the land was not farmed, and through the seventh seven of the Jubilee
year, when everyone returns to an intimate relationship the land.
The Torah also makes it clear through the whole list of curses that what is at stake is the relationship between humanity and the land.bThe curses proceed in stages: if you won’t listen then this thing will happen, and if you still won’t listen, then this next thing will happen. Since the fundamental aspect of our relationship with the land is that she feeds us, the curses describe the unraveling of that relationship, marked by how we eat and who eats whom. It’s easy to overlook this progression, since this thread gets woven in and out with other threads, but here’s what it looks like when we pull it out:
1) you will sow your seed for emptiness, for your enemies will eat it (26:16)
2) you will completely use your strength for emptiness, and your land will not give her produce and the tree of the land will not give his fruit (26:20)
3) I will send out against you the wild animal of the field (who was supposed to share in the Sabbath produce of the Shmitah year) and she will make you childless (26:22)
4) you will be gathered (like a harvest) into your cities. . . and I will break the staff of bread against you. . . you will eat, and you will not be satisfied (26:26)
5) you will eat the flesh of your sons and your daughter’s flesh you will eat (26:29)
6) you will be lost in the nations and the land of your enemies will eat you (26:38)
In summary: your enemies will eat your food, but your land will still produce. Then, your land will stop producing. Then the wild animals, with whom you didn’t share the land and the food that grows in the Sabbatical year, they will instead eat you. Then you will be gather like a harvest into the city instead of your grain and be unable to satisfy your appetite. Then you will eat your children. Then a strange land will eat you.
Because the Jewish people was in exile for so long, the last curse doesn’t seem like the worst one; because we love our children, the fifth curse sounds the worst. But symbolically if the land eats us, that represents the final step: a complete reversal of the right relationship between the people and the land.
Shmitah is the fundamental observance – all other commandments, even though they are important for themselves, also have the purpose of creating a society capable of observing Shmitah. And the Torah told us
in last week’s portion, Behar, exactly what the lesson of Shmitah is:
The land you may not sell permanently (latz’mitut), for the land is mine (ki li ha’aretz), for you are strangers and settlers by/with me (ki gerim v’toshavim atem `imadi). So in all the land of your tribe-possessions you will give redemption (g’ulah) to the land. (25:23-24)
Redemption, the goal we aspire to for ourselves, is what the land needs from us. If we don’t give the land her redemption, the Torah tells us what will happen. And if we do give the land her redemption:
I will set peace in the land. . . and I will make you fruitful. . . and I will make myself walk in the midst of you and I will become Elohim for you and you will become my people.(26:6,9,12)
But God will also not sell us latsmitut, permanently:
Those of you who are left. . . I will bring them into the land of their enemies. . . their uncircumcised hearts will be bent-to-shape. . . and I will remember my covenant. . . and I will remember the land. (26:42)
And this is the answer to the famous midrashic question: Why is the section of Shmitah and Jubilee introduced with the words: YHVH spoke to Moshe in Mount Sinai saying: Speak to Yisrael’s children and say unto them (25:1),
and why does it end with: These are the statutes and judgments and which YHVH set between him and between Yisrael’s children in Mount Sinai by Moshe’s hand (26:46)? Weren’t all the commandments given on Sinai? Why is Shmitah singled out as special?
And the answer simply is this: the purpose of Sinai was to create a new kind of relationship between people and the land, the relationship of Shmitah, rest and redemption.
SHABBAT PARASHAT MEVAREKHIM HAHODESH – 5775 – THE ANSWER IS BLOWING IN THE WIND
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
Torah Reading: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14
One of my favorite times of years is early fall, when the leaves start changing colors and begin falling off the trees. And, as the winds shift, one can listen to the blowing of the leaves as they shuffle together creating a symphony of natural music. Even living in Southern California where we don’t always experience the same change of seasons, I still think of that time as one of soothing comfort and promise and rebirth.
So, as I read the second of this week’s double Torah portion, Behukotai, the concluding parashah of the book of Leviticus, I find myself struggling to understand one particular verse which seems to present a very different image of the blowing leaves. In a narrative that is both poetic and troubling, the Torah presents the blessings that will be bestowed upon those who follow Torah and the devastating calamities that will result should the Torah be transgressed. Amongst the list of threats of retribution:
I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall chase them in flight . (Leviticus 26:36)
Only one other place in all of the books of the Bible is the metaphor of a “driven leaf” (aleh nidaf ) invoked. In the book of Job, as he suffers, he inquires “Why do you hide Your face . . . ? Will You harass a driven leaf?”
Aleh nidaf – a driven leaf – a leaf blown away by the wind, but whose sound, the commentators say is loud enough to invoke terror in the people. How is it that the sound of a driven leaf is to be compared to the horrors of the remaining threats of disease, death, hunger, and exile? What is there to fear in the sound of rustling leaves?
The early rabbinic Midrash Sifre on Leviticus recounts the words of Rabbi Yehudah ben Karchah: “Once we were sitting among the trees when a gust of wind caused the leaves to rustle. We got up and ran away, saying ‘Woe is to us if the (Roman) cavalry catches us.’ After a while we turned around and saw no one, so we returned to our places and said: ‘Woe is to us for with us has been fulfilled the verse and the sound of a driven leaf…”
According to the midrash, it is not the leaves that ultimately instill terror in the people; rather it is the irrational voices heard in moments that could otherwise be soothing that are the curse and fear that terrorizes Rabbi Yehudah ben Karchah and those with whom he sat under the trees – as if they heard voices of the enemy, assumed any noise was the noise of those chasing after them to destroy them.
This kind of punishment, teaches Hillel Silverman, can be likened to the paranoiac affliction of the wicked ‘who flee when no man pursues.’ At times, we too, if we are not careful and diligent, can be plagued by the ‘sound of a driven leaf’: imaginary persecution; fear of poverty, illness, or death; panic over success or failure; concern over a reversal of fortunes; or some other constant and crippling anxiety to which we can succumb.
So, how do we turn our heart back to recognizing the beauty of sounds of the leaves? How do we rid ourselves of the crippling anxiety?
Mastering our own fears takes ability, determination and truth. To those afflicted, such fears are as real as any physical ailment. So, we must confront them, reach the root and seek to heal them. As Emerson pointed out ‘Do the thing you fear and the death of that fear is certain.’ Any of us who has confronted our own fear or anxiety (even if only one amongst others that we have yet to master) knows what an incredibly empowering and restorative experience it can be to recognize the fear and choose to be or to do in spite of it. More than just reaching the roots of the fear, mastering the fear helps us reconnect with the root and essence of who we are and what it means to live.
Perhaps, then, it really is not so hard to see where holding on to Torah can help ward off such a terrible affliction. Perhaps it is for this reason that we are reminded of the Torah – Etz Hayim Hi – it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. A tree whose leaves sustain us and help us remember the sounds of success, achievement, comfort, and meaning.
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Sense of Direction
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The spiritual call to empty one’s cup
The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, Bechukotai, begins with an if/then: “If you follow My engraved-commandments and faithfully observe My connective-commandments…”
If we allow God’s commandments to be engraved upon our hearts, and if we guard the mitzvot and keep them close to us, then a lot of good things will come to pass, says Torah, including good rains and good harvests and peace in the land. But the promise that leapt out at me this year was “you will eat old grain long stored, and you will have to clear out the old to make room for the new.”
What does it mean to eat old grain long stored? To me this evokes what we’ve set aside for the proverbial rainy day. Torah seems to be suggesting that if we keep the mitzvot, if we allow them to work on us and perhaps even change us, we will feel safe consuming the resources we set aside. Because an abundant flow of new blessings will be waiting to come our way, and we won’t be able to receive those blessings until we make room for them.
Maybe some of you know the Buddhist parable of Nan-in and the teacup. Nan-in was a Buddhist monk, and someone came to him to learn the wisdom of Buddhism. Being a good host, he served tea to his visitor. He filled his visitor’s cup and then kept pouring the tea, so that it overflowed. The visitor leapt up, angry, and demanded to know why Nan-in was making such a mess. “You are like this teacup,” said Nan-in. “Your mind is already full of what you think you know. How can I pour in the wisdom you seek unless you first empty your cup?”
Sometimes spiritual life demands that we empty our granaries, that we empty our cup: that we let go of our certainties and allow new possibilities to change us.
Notice this, though: Torah isn’t saying that if we have trust in the abundance that is coming, then we’ll be able to do the mitzvot. Doing the mitzvot comes first. Act first, and trust will follow. And even if it doesn’t, act as though it does. Do the mitzvot, and then take the leap of faith of trusting that abundance is coming. The first thing we’re asked to do is to practice mitzvot. The second is to trust that the universe will repay us with shefa, with the boundless flow of blessing.
This isn’t investment advice — Torah isn’t telling us to burn our savings because if we follow the mitzvot we’ll be rewarded with riches. This is spiritual counsel. If we take on what our tradition calls ol malchut shamayim, “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” — if we accept the mitzvot upon ourselves — then God will ask us to take a leap of faith and to trust that good things are coming.
The word malchut, often translated as kingdom or sovereignty, has another meaning. To our mystics, malchut connotes Shechinah, the immanent indwelling Presence of God. Those of us who have been counting the Omer may have noticed that the seventh day of each week of the Omer is considered a day of malchut, a day of Shechinah’s presence. When we take on the mitzvot, we’re not just accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. We’re accepting the enfolding embrace of the Shechinah.
And when we know ourselves to be enfolded in God’s loving presence — when we know that we are loved by an unending love, when we can feel the connection of that loving presence wherever we go and whatever we do — then we can take the leap of faith that spiritual life demands. Then we can trust that there will be abundance in our lives and in our hearts.
From Rabbi David Kasher
The Secret of the World
“G’d’s Nearness is a Promise”
By Rabbi Elisheva Beyer,
Bechukotai tells us of G-d’s promises for following His commandments and consequences for failing to do so. The parsha opens with, “Bechukotai tale’chu,” which translates as, “If you go in My chukim….” “Chukim” (plural) or “chok” (singular) has several meanings.
With regard to this passage, chukim are understood as decrees from G-d which are not necessarily ones we can rationally understand. The classic chok identified in rabbinic literature is the ritual of the red heifer which purifies the defiled but defiles those involved in its preparation. While we may rationally understand the prohibitions against murder or robbery in a civilized society, the red heifer ritual is beyond understanding. Chok may also mean a boundary, as in, “When He assigned the sea its limits [chuko].” (Proverbs 8:29) Yet another meaning is an allotment or portion as, “Give me my daily portion of [chuki] bread.” (Prov. 30:8)
More specifically, bechukotai is related to the root “chakika,” which means “engraved.” Thus, our Sages tell us that G-d’s path must not only be written on our hearts, but rather, it must be engraved upon our soul. (Alter Rebbe, Likkutei Sichot Bechukosai; Sefat Emet Parsha Chuka) Our psyche and soul are to be engraved or, perhaps in modern language we would say that we are to be “hard-wired” with G-d’s path connecting us to G-d.
Consciously following G-d’s path must be interconnected with every moment. G-d is our first thought in the morning when we wake with thankful prayer for returning our souls to us. It is mindful focus upon G-d during every thought and every breath. G-d is concerned with everything we do: how we treat our family, ourselves, the stranger and even how we treat material items. Do we avoid negative speech? Do we preserve the dignity of each person we see though compassionate responses? Do we avoid waste? G-d’s path also needs to be our prayer mind as we thank G-d for the day and resolve to do better tomorrow in our last thoughts before we sleep.
Following G-d’s way is the path to blessing. The blessing for following G-d’s path is G-d’s nearness. “I will place My Sanctuary among you. My Spirit will not reject you. I will walk among you. I will be G-d unto you and you will be a people unto Me.” (Lev. 26:11-12)
Experiencing G-d’s presence is a gift which requires our focus. Where our mind takes us that is where we live. Would that we could live the prayers of King David who said, “I am my prayer.” (Ps. 69:14) and, “may my heart be perfect with Your statutes (chukim).” (Ps. 119:80)
During this time in the Hebrew calendar, we count the omer which challenges us to daily personal refinement as we move closer towards our own personal “Sinai.” This includes a dedication to G-d’s path. It must be a deeper experience than something merely written on our heart. Torah needs to be received in such a way that we cease to see ourselves as an independent entity, like pen and paper. We need to be so involved living G-d’s path that it is permanently engraved on our innermost being, where the person and “Torah” are integrally united.
DRIVEN MAD – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai
This post originally appears at Kevah.org.
All week, I’ve been thinking about this book, “As a Driven Leaf,” by Milton Steinberg.
It’s a beautiful book, and if I say nothing else this week, let me recommend you read it. The book is a unique mixture of genres and influences: a historical novel, written by a practicing rabbi with a doctorate in philosophy, which centers around the life of Elisha ben Abuya, the Talmud’s most famous heretic. But instead of roasting him, as we might have expected, Steinberg paints an extremely sympathetic picture of Elisha’s struggle with traditional belief. This ancient story, then, also comes to serve as reflection on modern atheism and the loss of faith.
But here’s what I spent half the week wondering: Why did Steinberg take the name of the book from this week’s parsha? Parshat Bechukotai is famous for its long middle section, called the Tochecha, or: ‘The Rebuke!’ In it, the Torah describes all the terrible things that God will do to the people of Israel if they, “do not obey me and do not observe my commandments…and break my covenant.” (Lev. 26:14-15)
And it’s a nasty list: sickness and starvation, attacks by wild beasts and enemy nations, and – perhaps worst of all : “You shall eat the flesh of your sons and daughters.” (v. 29) Then, finally, exile and constant terror: “I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you.” (v. 33)
It’s awful stuff, hard to read – so hard, in fact, that the tradition is to tear through it quickly and quietly during the public synagogue reading.
Towards the end of the Tochecha, there’s one very unusual curse, and it is here that we find the phrase that Steinberg borrowed:
As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf will set them to flight. Fleeing as though from a sword, they will fall, though none pursues. (Leviticus 26:36)
וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִים בָּכֶם–וְהֵבֵאתִי מֹרֶךְ בִּלְבָבָם, בְּאַרְצֹת אֹיְבֵיהֶם; וְרָדַף אֹתָם, קוֹל עָלֶה נִדָּף, וְנָסוּ מְנֻסַת-חֶרֶב וְנָפְלוּ, וְאֵין רֹדֵף.
After all the actual destruction, as if to add insult to injury, God sends some kind of panic that keeps us in fear.
And there’s that phrase: “A driven leaf.” Specifically, it is the sound of a driven leaf. So I start thinking, what’s that got to do with Milton Steinberg’s book? What does this leaf tell us about the fate of a heretic?
It is an unusual image, so I turn to the commentators to see how they’ve understood it. Rashi – always my first stop – says the following:
A driven leaf – Because the wind pushes it, and shoves it into another leaf, and they rustle and produce a sound.
עלה נדף – שהרוח דוחפו ומכהו על עלה אחר ומקשקש ומוציא קול
It seems Rashi is first trying to figure out a technical question – how does a leaf, blowing along in the wind, make noise? Answer: it hits other leaves. But the image he describes is one in which the leaf is being pushed around, almost as if it’s being beaten. There seems to be an element of suffering, a feeling of misery, attributed to this little leaf. And maybe Steinberg is drawing on those qualities with his title. The heretic is doomed to be the outcast, tormented by his search for truth, battered about and rejected by everyone around him.
There is another interesting interpretation of the ‘driven leaf’ phrase. This one is from the Sifra, the Halachic Midrash to Leviticus, and it emerges from a chilling rabbinic story:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karkha said: once, we were sitting between the trees, and the wind blew, crashing the leaves into one another. We got up and ran, and said, “Woe is us, perhaps the [Roman] cavalry has caught us!” After some time passed, we turned around and looked behind us, and we saw there was not a soul. And we sat right down there and cried, and we said, “Woe is us, for with us the verse has been fulfilled: ‘The sound of a driven leaf will set them to flight.’” (Sifra, Bechukotai 7:4)
אמר ר’ יהושע בן קרחה פעם אחת היינו יושבים בין האילנות ונשבה הרוח והטיחו העלים זה בזה; עמדנו ורצנו ואמרנו “אוי לנו שמא ידביקונו הפרשים!”. לאחר זמן נפנינו אחרינו, וראינו שאין בריה, וישבנו במקומנו ובכינו, ואמרנו “אוי לנו שעלינו נתקיים הפסוק “ורדף אותם קול עלה נדף”.
After their pathetic moment of panic, the rabbis suddenly realize that the danger isn’t outside of them, but a feeling within. The leaf here isn’t just a metaphor for their own frailty and oppression. It becomes the phantom oppressor itself, the little noise in the night which is mistaken for approaching monsters. But the monsters don’t exist anymore; they’re only in our heads. After years of trauma, we’re jittery and suspicious. Like a dog that’s been beaten too many times, and flinches even when you go to pet her.
In other words, the final curse is: paranoia. After all our suffering and exile, the ultimate tragedy is that we will never fully recover. We will always live in fear, looking over our shoulders, convinced that at any moment, they’re coming for us again.
This also fits the biblical language well: “I will cause faintness in their hearts… though none pursues.”
But…what does any of this have to do with Elisha ben Abuya?
Well, maybe Steinberg is saying that once Elisha ceased to believe, he was cursed to live in constant anxiety, to wander restlessly through a harsh world without hope of redemption. Or maybe he’s simply suggesting that the greatest battles are the ones that take place in our minds. Maybe?
Except that I’ve been totally wrong the whole time.
I go back and open the book… and immediately realize that Steinberg is referencing a different verse altogether. A different driven leaf. There, on the otherwise blank first page, is the epigraph:
Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face…
Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf? –Job 13: 24-25
לָמָּה פָנֶיךָ תַסְתִּיר
הֶעָלֶה נִדָּף תַּעֲרוֹץ
Ah, of course – Job! Of course Steinberg is referencing Job! Job is the ultimate tortured soul in the Bible, and the one who has the most reason to doubt God. In fact, that’s the whole point of that very dark book: Satan is given permission – by God – to bring unparalleled sufferings upon Job, in order to see if he will renounce his faith. Which Job, somehow, does not.
So Steinberg is comparing Elisha ben Abuya to Job. But unlike with Job, this time, in the battle between faith and doubt, faith finally loses.
Well, that makes much more sense. And the context of the quote is more fitting as well. It speaks of God “hiding His face” – seeming to be absent in the world. And here the leaf is not the sound that sends you needlessly running. It’s you, running from the idea of God, even as it continues to eat away at you, to “harass” you.
Ok, that’s much better. And here I was trying to tease out some loose association to a verse in our parsha. After all that, I just got the quote wrong! My mistake.
But wait. Not so fast. Is there really no connection here to the ‘driven leaf’ in Leviticus, the one that sends us running scared?
For the book of Job itself, at least, is almost certainly referencing the earlier ‘driven leaf,’ from The Rebuke. The clue is that in same chapter, fifteen lines above, Job says:
He will surely rebuke you…
His threat will terrify you and His fear will seize you. Job 13: 10-11
הוֹכֵחַ יוֹכִיחַ אֶתְכֶם
הֲלֹא שְׂאֵתוֹ, תְּבַעֵת אֶתְכֶם וּפַחְדּוֹ, יִפֹּל עֲלֵיכֶם
Job is indeed a man of faith – but not of simple faith. The God Job acknowledges is the terrifying and brutal one we meet here in our parsha. Yet somehow, Job still remains faithful. He begins verse 15 by offering a paradoxical pledge of continued belief, even in the face of total annihilation:
Though he may slay me, yet I will trust in Him…
הֵן יִקְטְלֵנִי, לוֹ אֲיַחֵל…
However – and this is a big however – the verse continues:
…yet I will bring my rebuke before Him.
אַךְ-דְּרָכַי, אֶל-פָּנָיו אוֹכִיחַ.
Faithful he may be, but Job does not simply submit. He does not simply accept the God who allows such suffering. In fact, he brings his case against God in the same language that God brought a case against Israel, the language of rebuke. And here is that language yet again, at the beginning of the chapter :
Indeed, I will speak to the Almighty; I insist on rebuking God. Job 13:3
אוּלָם–אֲנִי, אֶ-ל-שַׁדַּי אֲדַבֵּר; וְהוֹכֵחַ אֶל-אֵל אֶחְפָּץ.
Then Job proceeds to ask God the questions from Steinberg’s quote: 1. ) “Why do you hide your face?” – Where are You, God? And, 2.) “Will you harass a driven leaf?” – Why do You cause such suffering, God? Why are You so cruel?
This is a direct reference to the curse of the driven leaf from Leviticus, and the implication is that, in whole of ‘The Rebuke’ from Leviticus, this is the one that’s really beyond the pale. It is bad enough that God should inflict physical suffering. But psychological torture?! That’s too much. Job continues to believe in God, yes, but he can no longer justify God’s actions.
Steinberg’s Elisha ben Abuya simply takes the case one step further: A God like that isn’t just cruel, but altogether absent.
Steinberg is quoting Job, yes. But Job is quoting Parshat Bechukotai. And through these three layers of text, Job, Elisha ben Abuya and Milton Steinberg are joining together to put God on trial.
Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?
From My Jewish Learning
Rebuke and Reward in this World
The fate of the individual is often determined by the behavior of the community as a whole.
BY RABBI ISMAR SCHORSCH
The penultimate chapter of Leviticus consists of a divine plea to heed God’s commandments. It takes the form of inducements and intimidations, promises of agricultural bounty and national tranquility and threats of defeat, chaos and exile. The future of ancient Israel in its homeland will depend entirely on its adherence to the revelation at Sinai. Aside from the poetry of the passage, its rhetoric pulsates with a tone of urgency. Free will has its risks; people may choose to put themselves in harm’s way. Rebellion against the strictures of God is the persistent evil that endangers society.
Neither this collection of admonitions nor those at the end of Deuteronomy are cast in terms of life after death or the world-to-come. They are utterly different from the hellfire sermons of Puritan New England in which compliance is coerced through damnation. The religious vocabulary of the Torah , and indeed the Tanakh (the full Bible, comprising the Torah, Prophets and Writings), is pervasively this-worldly. Life predominates as the supreme value and relegates an inchoate notion of the afterlife — Sheol — to the margins of collective consciousness. Accordingly, retribution or reward are natural phenomena, occurring in the here and now. The language betrays no notion of a soul that transcends death.
Equally noteworthy, the audience for our concluding address is the people as a whole, and not the individual Israelite. What will be weighed in the balance is the piety and morality of the nation, which if found to be wanting will impact adversely on the fate of the minority of God-fearing citizens. To abide personally by God’s will can secure one’s well-being only if a sufficient number of others do the same. Hence, the paradigmatic nature of Abraham’s discourse with God on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. How many righteous members will it take to avert the destruction of a community? Throughout much of the Bible the group takes precedence over the individual. The marquee actor in the drama is the nation. The Torah’s legislative agenda is to forge a mass of slaves into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” a beacon of justice and righteousness for an ever wayward humanity.
For all their power, then, these admonitions could not be the final word on God’s moral calculus. While history confounds the correlation between the fate of the nation and its character, the plight of the individual begged for divine empathy. The Hellenistic world, with its heightened sensibility for the priority of the individual, created the context for post-biblical Judaism to absorb a full-blown belief in life after death. By the first century B.C.E., the Second Book of Maccabees eases the pain of martyrdom with the promise of immortality and resurrection. And several centuries later, the Mishnah makes the belief normative: those who deny that the doctrine of resurrection is not to be found in the Torah forfeit their place in the world to come (Sanhedrin 10:1).
What interests me in this theological evolution is how the earlier biblical strata are salvaged. Creative exegesis allows for reconciliation. The master of this preservative technique is Maimonides, who devoted his life to rereading the Bible in light of Aristotelian philosophy. Hebrew Scripture and Greek philosophy served as two media for the expression of the same truths.
The material blessings stipulated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for Maimonides, represent an intermediary stage in the path to individual salvation. By providing for our collective physical needs — fertility and food, law and order and domestic tranquility and national security — they generate the conditions within which we can indulge our love of Torah full time.
Reconsidering these blessings after more than a millennium of national exile, Maimonides understood them to be a depiction of the messianic era, when a scion of King David will have restored the Jewish people to its land, rebuilt the Temple and achieved a lasting state of peace. None of this will be effected through divine intervention, but solely through enlightened leadership. Though “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid,” the nature of the world will remain unchanged. The Messiah is but a warrior steeped in Torah, a mortal combining the prowess of Bar Kochba with the piety and profundity of Rabbi Akiva.
Maimonides draws a sharp distinction between the messianic era and the world-to-come. The former is natural and collectively experienced; the latter supernatural and individually attained. The messianic era creates an ideal set of circumstances in which each of us can pursue what the harsh reality of daily life denies us: the undistracted study of Torah. According to Maimonides, “neither the prophets nor the rabbis yearned for the messianic era in order to rule the world or oppress the gentiles or enter into matrimony with them or wine and dine, but solely to be free to engage in Torah and philosophy.” A world at peace becomes the springboard for individual salvation.
In this vision of the world-to-come, the love of God expressed in the ceaseless endeavor to fathom the nature of God leads to the immortality of the soul. As our understanding expands, our love intensifies and rationality gives way to mysticism. Union with God is the ultimate blessing for those solitary individuals who have extended themselves intellectually to serve the Almighty without desire of reward (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, chapters 8-10; Hilkhot Melakhim, chapter 12).
For all his elitism and intellectualism, Maimonides has caught the spirit of Leviticus’ litany of reward and rebuke. Coming at the end of the Holiness Code (chapters 17-26) the composition reaches for a level of morality that would transform our brutish existence into a paradigm of the good life.
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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