Torah Reading for the Week of May 11-17, 2014
By Cantor Jay Frailich, Professor of Liturgical Studies at AJRCA
I remember as a child doing something that aggravated my mother. With her finger wagging furiously in my direction, she shouted, “Kabeid es avicha v’es imecha (honor your father and your mother)!” I knew what it meant and she immediately followed up with, “or God will punish you.” As a nine year old, I felt the import of her message to me, “Be good or God will punish you.” The very idea of being punished by the Creator of the heaven and the earth was terrifying. It was enough to scare me to behave better – at least until the next time I aggravated her.
The Torah portion Bechukotai has, at its base, the same meaning implied in my mother’s threat. The first thirteen verses of Leviticus 26 tell us that if we follow God’s laws we will be blessed and flourish. From verse 14 until verse 45 we read a section that our sages called tochacha: ‘warning,’ ‘admonition.’ “If you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments … I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever …” (Leviticus 26:14-15). The admonitions get more severe as the passage continues.
As I grew older I often pondered the questions, “Is there a connection between our behavior and how we are treated by God?” and “Does God really punish us?” The answer to those questions lies in how one looks at the Torah. A fundamentalist might look at the tochacha section as being binding and follow the mitzvot to be blessed and avoid punishment. As one who has spent his 40-year career in the progressive movement of Judaism, I look at the Torah and its issues metaphorically. What are the life lessons that I can glean from the passage?
Certainly, I see all around me that the consequences of human behavior don’t always have a direct correlation to how one’s life turns out. We all know good people who suffer and bad people who prosper. So how are we to look at Bechukotai’s admonitions?
As a collective, a Jewish people, our behavior matters. While there may not be a direct correlation between our behavior and our fate, the very concept of doing mitzvot as our ethical imperative sets an ideal for us to follow.
If we collectively aim to behave ethically we become better. Also, when we, as a society, miss the mark, we are diminished. The admonitions in Leviticus 26 should impel us to think that our behavior does matter. Both individually and collectively, there are consequences for how we act.
Maybe my mother got it right after all.