Bechukotai: You Broke It, You Fix It

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

Greetings from oh-so-soggy Swampscott! It’s been raining here for days, but
perhaps the
light of Torah will brighten the dreariness. This week’s portion, Bechukotai,
contains a
section known as “tochecha,” or “rebuke,” in which the Israelites are promised
many
blessings if they faithfully keep the commandments and are also warned of bitter
doom
and disaster if they don’t.

It’s a difficult passage, given that contemporary theology tends to separate sin
from
misfortune. As Rabbi Kushner points out, it’s hardly compassionate to tell the
sick or
injured person that they must have deserved it because of their misdeeds. Yet
these
passages of “rebuke” also contain verses of great beauty and hope. One can feel
the
emotional plea being made to the covenant community, to turn from evil and do
good, and
the God of mercy will be awaiting your return.

What’s interesting is that underneath the seemingly gory, “tit for tat” verses
promising
disaster for the unfaithful but great reward for the righteous is a perspective
that most of
us could, in fact, agree with: that human beings are fully capable of making
noble choices.
To put it another way, the Torah wouldn’t give us stern warnings if it didn’t
think we had
the potential to choose the good, right and true.

Rashi makes this point beautifully in a commentary on verse 26:9, which promises
that
God will “set up My covenant” with those who choose the paith of faithfulness:

Rashi’s commentary:

“[This means] a new covenant, not like the first covenant, which you broke, but
a new
covenant, which will not be broken, as it is said, ‘I will form a new covenant
with the House
of Israel and with the House of Judah-not like the covenant [that I formed with
their
forefathers… that they broke]’ ” (Jeremiah 31:30-31).

Rashi uses this language of a “new covenant,” borrowed from a later prophet, to
say that
the relationship between God and humanity can be restored, even if we have
broken that
relationship and moved away from our true Source. Notice Rashi’s insistance that
<we>
broke the earlier covenant, but the new one will not be broken.

Now, you might ask: how does Rashi- or even God, who gave us free will- know
that the
new covenant (which I see as an image of restored intimacy and partnership)
won’t be
broken by us just like the earlier one was?

Well, the answer might be: not even God can know what human beings will
ultimately
choose, but Judaism retains its faith in the potential for human restoration and
reconcilation. People- all of us- “break the covenant” with God on a daily
basis, by turning
away from our spiritual potential and failing to live up to the Image of God
within, yet it’s
always possible to return to our noblest selves and our deepest truths.

Rashi holds out a vision in which people- both as individuals and as a
community- learn
from their mistakes and emerge more faithful through the journey. We broke, but
that
means we can fix; we strayed, but that means we can return; we were disloyal to
ourselves
and our God, but that means we can achieve new intimacy and a refashioned heart.
Our
greatest teacher of Torah believed that the “new covenant” will not be broken-
not by God,
and not by us. It’s an amazing statement of faith- faith in humankind, and our
capacity
for renewed relationship with a God who believes in us.

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