The “iffy” nature of our being, and our ability to heal and hurt, commit and flee, follow and rebel is a challenge to the divine cosmic constant. To stay in relationship and maintain connection with hopefulness and forgiveness, we need to also make space for health, anger and acknowledging fear.
This week’s parsha Behukkotai (My Directives!), would more aptly be titled Eem Behukkotai (If you heed My directives).
It is easy to experience this portion of the Torah as a harsh assessment of human nature, the source of life discharging expected disappointment, perhaps scaring our ancestors into the right path or, our own people laying the groundwork for exile consciousness.
We are told that if we keep the commandments, we will enjoy material prosperity and dwell securely. But we also receive a harsh “rebuke,” warning of the exile, persecution and other evils that will befall us if we abandon divine direction.
Still, in the end, “Even when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away nor will I ever abhor them, to destroy them and to break My covenant with them; for I am Is/Was/Will-Be their God.”
Yet we know that life does not always reward good behavior, nor is evil always condemned. The “iffy” nature of our being, and our ability to heal and hurt, commit and flee, follow and rebel is a challenge to the divine cosmic constant. To stay in relationship and maintain connection with hopefulness and forgiveness, we need to also make space for health, anger and acknowledging fear.
I see our tradition and life experience in a parsha such as this, expressing outwardly what we all wrestle with internally in our hearts. The hand that helps can also harm — how we will operate in the world given our own inconsistencies and moments of excelling in compassion and acts of caring and equity, as well as when we lose our center and act out of old narratives, prejudice, fear and insecurity?
Rabbi Shefa Gold writes in her book Torah Journeys, “Bechukotai describes two different states of consciousness which may become the lens of perception that mediate our experiences of life’s gifts and challenges. THE FIRST STATE that Bechukotai describes is what might be called “heaven.” 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.
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. … Steeped in the consciousness of heaven, it is impossible not to act from compassion.
In Leviticus 26:41, our hearts are finally humbled.
An ancient Midrash catalogued the wide range of additional capabilities of the heart reported in the Hebrew Bible (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:36). The heart speaks, sees, hears, walks, falls, stands, rejoices, cries, is comforted, is troubled, becomes hardened, grows faint, grieves, fears, can be broken, becomes proud, rebels, invents, cavils, overflows, devises, desires, goes astray, lusts, is refreshed, can be stolen, is enticed, errs, trembles, is awakened, loves, hates, envies, is searched, is rent, meditates, is like a fire, is like a stone, turns in repentance, becomes hot, dies, melts, takes in words, is susceptible to fear, gives thanks, covets, becomes hard, makes merry, acts deceitfully, speaks from out of itself, loves bribes, writes words, plans, receives commandments, acts with pride, makes arrangements, and aggrandizes itself.
This list from our sacred texts and centuries of experience is a collection that lays out the many paths our psycho-emotional states may lead us on. There will be cause and effect. There will be alignment and harmony, disquiet and shattering. Living a spiritual life in a Jewish or any context does not guarantee outcomes.
Parallel to the many themes of justice, fairness, equity and compensation in Behukottai are issues we deal with today. To do the work of tikkun (balance and repair) in our world means dealing with setbacks and progress, misunderstandings and breakthroughs.
I pray for the guidance and strength to live a Godly life in harmony with the directives our Torah and our tradition make available to us. It is an “iffy” journey, and we must claim the path of love and justice, even as we continue to evolve.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit is the lead rabbi for Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and a widely-known consultant, teacher, author, spiritual director, musician and community organizer. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.