Jewish learning I’d Like to Exchange these Curses for Blessing, Please?
Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)
We live in times of global pandemic; new unexplained and terrifying diseases; legal and political challenges to human dignity and bodily autonomy; supply chain issues creating, among other shortages, a nationwide baby formula crisis; the humanitarian disaster caused by the Russia invasion of Ukraine; rising antisemitism, white supremacy, transphobia and other varieties of hate; and gun violence both related and unrelated to them. Our society, our world, is plagued by so much trouble, by so many issues that in my youth seemed to be in the process of resolving. Now, it seems, we’re moving backwards, descending into chaos, and seeking someone to blame. And all of these crises, independently and in conjunction, disproportionately impact the most vulnerable.
In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Bechukotai, God offers the fledgeling Israelite community a blessing or a curse. The curses parallel the blessings, though they go on much longer, describing the desperation in painstaking detail. Though originally delivered thousands of years ago, they sound familiar even today: misery, disease, scarcity, environmental crisis, war, ruthlessness, wanton destruction, desolation, loss of compassion. This vision of curses, known as the tochecha, the rebuke, is only one possibility, and whether we receive the blessing or the curse is linked to our actions. The blessings are preceded by the conditional statement
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם
If you go by my laws, and guard my commandments, and do them (Leviticus 26:3)
and the curses are preceded by a similar statement about ignoring God’s rules.
On the level of the plainest reading of the text, this section implies a theology of divine reward and punishment: a God who provides faithful followers the best life has to offer, and threatens a world of hurt in retribution for disobedience. While in general, my personal theology differs significantly from this approach, I have moments of ruminating on particular personal misfortunes as signs of divine disapproval. One such moment was a Yom Kippur—a day that already leans in the direction of reward and punishment theology—years ago, shortly after I had my first miscarriage. In this context, I could hardly help but see it as divine judgment. Amid the fear and sadness, I also felt a sense of dread. I went on to have other healthy pregnancies and births, resulting in children I love deeply. Nonetheless, for years after, on Yom Kippur, and occasionally at other times, I would feel a shadow of that dread. It is a dread that has returned more often recently, as I read news of a changing legal landscape, that would put a person in the situation I faced then in further danger. Due to our societal reluctance to discuss miscarriage, many people don’t understand how common it is. When people do experience it, they are taken by surprise, uncertain what to do, and now—or soon—with state laws defining the beginning of life as conception, they may also face prosecution for feticide. These laws leave such a person vulnerable not only to internal and divine judgment, but also to that of human beings with limited capacity to understand and no basis on which to judge.
A system oriented around reward and punishment is not my theology of choice, any more than it is my approach as a teacher or parent. Just as I tend towards peaceful parenting, a philosophy of respect for human dignity, of striving for mutual understanding, and of natural consequences when necessary; so too, I imagine God “parents” us this way as well. Theologically, I usually read passages of Torah like the tochecha, as communal rather than personal, and as a description of what happens to societies, fairly and in due course, when, as a whole, we fail to establish them on the principles of justice, compassion and communal responsibility that God outlines for us in the mitzvot.
Yet even this has been challenging for me to accept at this moment, after years of this pandemic, with all the other troubles that have ebbed and flowed in that time. While we’ve seen a lot of people making selfish choices, disregarding the dignity of other human beings, discounting the value of life itself, we’ve also seen tremendous acts of caring, of people and communities supporting each other, protecting the vulnerable, and doing so at cost or risk to themselves. Yet the problems keep coming, relentlessly.
Our sages wonder why, in the conditional prelude to the blessings, the “if statement” needs to be repeated three times. Why does God not simply say, “If you do the mitzvot, then you get the blessing”? Many commentators read into the first variation “Im bechukotai teileichu, If you go [lit. walk] by my laws” that walking is a metaphor for an extended, lifelong commitment to study and learning. In the second variation, “umitzvotai tishmeru, and you guard my commandments,” the medieval commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra sees guarding as teaching. By transmitting the Torah to the next generation, we can ensure that it will persist. The 16th century rabbi, Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, writes that guarding connotes a deeper understanding of the commandments, not only the letter of the laws but also the intentions and purposes that they represent. By learning conscientiously, and acting with deep understanding and intention, he says, we can achieve our potential as reflections of the divine image. In either case, the final iteration, “va’asitem otam, and you do them” establishes that study, even when it leads to deep understanding or to transmission to future generations, is meaningless without action.
What does this mean for the state of our world? Is there hope to turn the curses into blessings? In our present situation, each of us has the potential to be a part of turning things around. How? In three parts. First, we can walk in the ways of learning; both in our sacred texts, and in the Torah that is written in the life experience of other people with perspectives different than our own. Next, we can guard the learning: both committing to understand, as deeply as we can, the kind of just, loving, community-minded society that God urges us to establish and transmitting that understanding, with love, justice and respect, to our children and students. Finally, we can act with determination according to that understanding, with the intention to fulfill that vision and transmit it.
May we be blessed with the patience, the stubbornness, the courage and the wisdom to recognize and choose blessing.
Rabbi Shira Shazeer received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010. Previously she studied Torah in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Learning and music at Goucher College. This weekend she graduates from Hebrew College again with an additional Masters Degree in Jewish Education, with a focus on special education. Rabbi Shazeer teaches in the learning center at Gann Academy, and directs the Boston chapter of HaZaPrep, the preparatory arm of HaZamir, the international Jewish teen choir.