Bechukotai: Connections and Consequences

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

We’re reading the Torah portion Bechukotai, which is not the easiest
nor most fun part of the Torah. Coming at the end of the book of
Vayikra/Leviticus, Bechukotai opens up with a promise and a warning: a
promise of blessing if they are obedient to the covenant and warned of
great curses and disaster if they are not. Typical would be verses
26:14-16:

“But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments,
if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe
all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this
to you: I will wreak misery upon you . . . . . ”

Well, that’s no fun.

Let’s be honest: most people reading this commentary probably have a
hard time accepting the the idea that suffering in this world is
directly connected to “sin,” as such. To believe that God directs
suffering upon the wicked in this world (as opposed to the world to
come) is not only contrary to the evidence available in most daily
newspapers, but deeply theologically problematic. To wit: shall we say
that those who suffer illness or disaster deserved it? That seems
rather unkind, to say the least.

On the other hand. . . . . . we can read these verses metaphorically,
as describing an inter-connected world of consequences and feedback
loops on the level of community and society. When we- big “we,”
meaning, the larger community- aren’t acting out of a shared vision of
ethical purpose, bad things happen and it’s going to bite us hard.
It’s hard to imagine a connection between sin and cyclones but not
hard to imagine that a society which grossly ignores environmental
responsibility is going to have higher cancer rates- which, in turn,
can lead to feelings of spiritual despair as described in the “rebuke”
verses of our Torah portion.

Another case in point: in case you missed it, the largest immigration
raid in U.S. history happened about a week ago, and the target was a
kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa. The news has been disturbing at best,
with allegations of underpayment and even sexual abuse of illegal
immigrants hired to produce kosher meat under the strictest religious
supervision. Because this company produces a large share of the kosher
meat in America, the virtual shutdown of one of its biggest plants
seems to be causing shortages of kosher meat in parts of the country
far from Iowa- it’s a complicated and distressing situation.

So here we have an example of covenant and consequences: hundreds of
news articles across the country are linking the kosher industry to
unethical employment practices, which creates an appearance that
observant Jews care more about how the cows die than how the workers
live. If that’s not enough to make our community “miserable,” as the
verse above says, then we’re not paying attention. We- the broader
Jewish community- haven’t demanded that kosher meat be kosher
according to all the laws of the Torah, including the ones which teach
us to treat our workers with dignity and fairness and the ones which
mandate that animals shall live and die free of unnecessary and
avoidable pain and suffering.

The Conservative movement is creating a “Hechsher Tzedek,” which is a
kosher supervision which addresses these broader ethical concerns, but
it’s a nascent project. The United Synagogue and Rabbinical Assembly
have released a statement- linked below- which urges kosher meat
consumers to evaluate whether meat from the Rubashkin’s plant (which
is under various labels such as Rubashkin’s, Aaron’s and David’s)
should be purchased at all. This story is far from over (as a quick
check of Google news will reveal- use the search term Agriprocessors)
and my hope is that it will provoke some soul searching in the Jewish
community about what it means to walk in God’s laws, to use the
language of Behukotai. What happens in Iowa affects the synagogues in
Poughkeepsie; we are connected, all people, all communities, for
blessing and for rebuke.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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