Archive for Bechukotai

Bechukotai: Healing The Deepest Hurts

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron, engraved with an adamant point on the tablet of their hearts (Jeremiah 17:1)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, is the final portion of the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. It’s also a very difficult text, having two themes which are hard for many contemporary Jews to interpret, the first being the material rewards or punishments due to Torah observance or lack thereof, and the second being the monetary valuation of people according to various ranked criteria, for the purpose of the payment of vows.

The haftarah, or prophetic text, is from the book of Jeremiah, and seems at first glance to reinforce the theme of faithfulness to God being rewarded and idolatry punished. The verse quoted above begins a long passage describing Divine anger to be visited upon the people of Judah who have worshipped idols and false gods; they will be overthrown and exiled from the land of their inheritance.

So far . . not so good. The metaphor of guilt inscribed with an iron stylus, engraved on a tablet with the cutting edge of a gemstone tool, seems to indicate that the offense of the people of Judah was as permanent as etching in stone. It’s a hard, cold, stark image, implying that some misdeeds permanently disfigure a human heart, leaving an irreparable spiritual flaw. Yet after several more verses in which the faithful person is praised and the idolator condemned and shamed, the haftarah concludes in a different voice, not the third person description of the sinner but a first person, and personal, prayer:

Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed; Save me, and let me be saved; for You are my glory.  (Jeremiah 17:14)

It’s important to remember that a Torah or haftarah reading was chosen by the ancient rabbis to begin and end on certain verses. It’s not an accident that a prophetic text with such an apparently harsh view of sin- engraved upon the heart, like letters in stone- ends with a prayer for healing. This is not an esoteric message: yes, some of our mistakes and misdeeds cut deeply into our own hearts and into the hearts of those we hurt, but we also believe in a God of healing, Whose power is made manifest in the transformation of the human spirit.

Bad things happen when people choose badly, but I believe the point of the haftarah is that we are not condemned to carry the burden of guilt forever. Sin may be as deep in our hearts as engraving in stone, but unlike stone, we can turn back to the One who heals. We believe in a God who heals with love and forgiveness those who truly seek to return, renew, and rebuild themselves, their families and their communities. Of course, a theology of Divine forgiveness has a strong moral corollary: if God can heal the pain engraved in our hearts, shall we not more freely forgive others who feel equally ashamed?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said it well: if you believe you can damage, believe you can fix!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Behar-Bechukotai: What Do We Do With Rebuke?

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

I am proud that this week’s commentary was first published as the Mekor Chaim weekly email by the Jewish Federations of North America. 

The Torah portion Bechukotai, often doubled up with the preceding portion, is not easy reading. A big portion of the text is called tochecha, or rebuke, which here means detailed descriptions of blessings and curses from Heaven that will ensue if the Torah is either followed or disregarded. For many contemporary Jews, linking sin with suffering is both an intellectual and moral impossibility: intellectually, we know that many good people suffer without cause, and morally, we cannot blame God for the choices of human beings which cause pain, grief and despair.

So perhaps it makes more sense to read these the tochecha as descriptive of the people’s spiritual or emotional experience rather than as a promise of Divine retribution. A people that makes itself worthy by acts of justice and compassion will feel itself blessed, but a society built on idolatry (worship of vain things), greed and oppression will tear itself apart and feel itself to be in a hostile cosmos. While at first glance the blessings and curses seem to be economic in nature- blessing comes from the land and the curses are when the land no longer produces- the text also makes clear that ultimate blessing is a sense of the Divine in our midst:

And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:12)

Conversely, the rabbis imagine that the ultimate punishment is the loss of a spiritual center:

And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins,  and I will break your proud glory. . . . .  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:18-19)

In this case, they interpret “proud glory” (or “pride of your power”) as referring to the Temple of Jerusalem, which was “broken” not once but twice in Jewish history. While it’s hard to imagine God breaking the Temple to make a moral point, the ancient sages believed that losing the Temple, the symbol of Jewish spirituality and vitality, was a greater calamity than bad harvests or military defeat. Without reading these words literally- as a promise of Heavenly retribution- we can read them with great empathy, as expressing the experience of those who lost the sense of the Divine Presence when Jerusalem was overthrown.

So what do we do with these difficult texts? First we should to allow ourselves to be moved by the intense spiritual longing in the Torah and its commentaries: the feeling that the poetry conveys is that the ultimate blessing is nothing material but the Divine Presence itself, and when that is lost, hardly anything else matters. Second, we should allow the tochecha to challenge any moral complacency we have about ourselves or our community: are we really as individuals or a polity doing all we can to be loyal to the Torah’s values of justice and mercy, or are we letting these things slip from us without a care? Are we going to a society which makes and shares the blessing, or do we deserve the rebuke these verses offer?

These are hard questions, but nothing important was ever easy.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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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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Behar/Bechukotai: Rewards Within

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

This week we have a double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai, which means we read the haftarah that goes
with Bechukotai, from the prophet Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah. Yirmiyahu
was not the most chipper chap running around ancient Israel; much of
his prophecy concerns the doom awaiting sinners, which thematically
corresponds to the section in Bechukotai called the “tochecha,” or
“rebuke,” in which all sort of bad things are enumerated as the fate
of those who spurn the Divine Covenant.

These are problematic texts, to be sure; most of us over the age of
about 8 see that reward and punishment are not always so clear- at
least, not in this world. Yet to me, the the main theme of the
haftarah is not punishment, but faith. A beautiful and famous passage
describes a faithful life as ever-renewing:

“Cursed is he who trusts in man,
Who makes mere flesh his strength,
And turns his thoughts from the Lord.
He shall be like a bush in the desert,
Which does not sense the coming of good:
It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness,
In a barren land without inhabitant.
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. ” (Yirmiyahu 17:5-8)

Now, on the one hand, this is a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual
life: such a person is like tree planted by water, who can withstand
life’s vicissitudes and hard seasons. However, one might question the
first part of the metaphor- the person who trusts “in man, who makes
mere flesh his strength”- well, what’s so bad about trusting people?
Isn’t it good to be part of a web of relationships, which necessarily
involves a positive view of oneself and other people?

I think the first part of the passage above is clarified by comparing
it to another passage a few verses later:

“Like a partridge hatching what she did not lay,
So is one who amasses wealth by unjust means;
In the middle of his life it will leave him,
And in the end he will be proved a fool”

The prophet is saying something obvious (especially these days): if
you orient your life such that your happiness and security comes from
material gain to the exclusion of moral and spiritual connection,
you’re likely to end up unhappy, because external things- objects,
money, status- can be lost or taken. (Again, an obvious point these
days.)

Returning to the first passage, recall that the one who “trust in man”
is one who “makes mere flesh his strength”- that is, such a person
relies on temporary, external things, like physical strength, status
and materiality, and this is why he is like the tree in the desert-
there’s nothing to fall back on when the stock market crashes or the
body declines or whatever external circumstances change. The person
who “trusts in the Lord alone” is not a hermit, but one who knows that
one’s spiritual accomplishments- giving, loving, doing good, helping
others, acting in compassion- can only be practiced in community and
can never be taken away. Such a person lives more deeply because of
the spiritual dimension of their life- that depth is its own reward,
and is cultivated from within rather than given from above.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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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Behar/Bechukotai: Roots and Fruit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

Dear Friends: The following thought grew out of a eulogy I gave
yesterday for a long-time member of Temple Beth-El, whose life was
both interesting and inspiring. I have adapted the interpretation of
the verses below for our weekly study together, but those folks in
Poughkeepsie who think they’re hearing something familar are indeed
paying attention.

With that said, let’s turn not to our Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai,
but the haftarah, or prophetic reading, which comes from the book of
Jeremiah, who was a prophet who lived sometime around the late 7th or
early 6th century BCE. In this part of the book of Jeremiah, the
prophet uses a variety of metaphors, symbols and images to contrast a
person who is faithful to God to one who has strayed from the religion
of Israel. Over and over again, the prophet tells of the blessings of
the loyal Israelite and the futility of the idol worshipper, whose
choice is not only mistaken theologically, but leads to spiritual
destitution.

One of the homiletic images Jeremiah employs is that of a tree planted
by streams of water, which is contrasted in earlier verses with a
dried-up bush in the desert:

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. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

Verse 7 may be familiar to those who recite the birkat hamazon, or
blessing after the meal, in which it is quoted. In its own context,
the meaning of the image is clear: the one who trusts, or has faith
in, the God of Israel will be sustained in hard times and better able
to “blossom” in good times than one who worships false gods, who
cannot help a person through times of suffering or achieve any sort of
real spiritual growth.

One reason I find this image powerful and evocative is because it
portrays a rich human life as one that both “takes in” and “brings
forth”- the image of roots is one of drawing from inner resources and
the image of yielding fruit, to me, suggests the acts of caring and
love which we are able to offer in the world. A healthy tree can’t
“yield fruit” if it doesn’t have roots- that is, a person cannot
consistently offer of him or herself without some spiritual resources
to draw upon when times get tough or inner strength gets depleted.

For the prophet, the inner resource was faith in God, but I don’t
think this meant only an intellectual faith- I think it also meant
living one’s life in faithful ways, even when – returning to our image
and updating it with a modern idiom- the “heat was on.” To put it
another way, the prophet’s image of the tree compels each of us to
ask: upon what source of spiritual strength or moral courage do we
draw upon when we feel “dried up” (o, in a modern idiom that retains
the same resonance, “burned out”) ?

Jeremiah suggests that each of us needs “roots”- that is, an inner
life of connection to the sacred and faith in spiritual principles- in
order to “yield fruit”- that is, live a life of deeds which offer
sustenance to others and bring sweetness to the world. Roots without
fruit are meaningless, and a tree which blooms and blossoms without
roots isn’t going to last very long- this is the reason that Judaism
teaches that learning is a life-long practice, with growth achieved
over the arc of a lifetime, with wisdom and deeds balancing and
reinforcing each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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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