Bechukotai: Water from Within

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Bechukotai is difficult, with its overt promises of earthly reward for the righteous and corresponding terrible consequences for the wicked and disloyal. Most adult observers of the human condition realize that life is not so simple: the good often suffer, and nasty people sometimes live long and prosperous lives. (Whether those lives are fully lived is a separate question.)

Fortunately, we do not read Bechokotai alone: we read it with an accompanying haftarah [selection from the prophetic texts], which at first glance seems to reinforce the image of God as stern judge, convicting the guilty:

“I the Lord probe the heart,
Search the mind —
To repay every man according to his ways,
With the proper fruit of his deeds. . . . . .” (Jeremiah 17:10)

Yet in the same passage, the prophet offers a strikingly different image of Divinity:

“O Hope of Israel! O Lord!
All who forsake You shall be put to shame,
Those in the land who turn from You
Shall be doomed men,
For they have forsaken the Lord,
The Fount of living waters.” (17:13)

The Hebrew is poetic in the original, so where the JPS translation, above, suggests that those who turn from God are “doomed men,” but more literally, the verse says something like “those who turn from you will be written in the land.” Perhaps this refers to burial, or perhaps simply contrasts a static, fixed inscription in the earth with the “fount of living waters,” which suggests a dynamic, sustaining, growing, flowing sense of the Holy. In other words, the Biblical texts do not only suggest that God is the judge- an anthropomorphic image- but also a well of water, the source of life itself, something to be drawn upon, something which rises up from within.

The contemporary Jewish theologian Art Green famously contrasted “vertical metaphors” for God- that is, a God Who is “up” or “out” or “above us”, coming “down to the mountain” – with the images in the Torah that suggest an indwelling Presence: wells, rivers, living water. This, in turn, suggests a spiritual experience that unfolds from the inside out, which makes the stern Judge of Bechokotai part of our own inner reality. If God is like water- welling up from deep places- then the consequences of sin, as such, are not externally imposed punishments, but a drying up of the soul, cut off from its deep sustenance.

This comes back to our haftarah, which offers another image of life-giving water:

“Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.” (17:7-8)

That’s the point, I think: digging a bit deeper, into the place of transcending the ego, the narrow self, is what allows us to bring forth the fruit- that is, to bring forth our deeds of compassion, patience, and justice. Biblical images of judgment evoke a deep sense of accountability, and are entirely appropriate at times, but the prophet’s image of God as the Living Water remind us that it’s what we bring forth in our actions which is the true test of faith.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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