Via Shamash Org on-line class service
Jewish Renewal www.jewishrenewal.info
Jewish Spiritual Renewal
Hilton Head Island, SC, Bluffton, SC, Savannah, GA
This parasha ends the Book of Leviticus. If there has been a recurring motif in this book it has been "Kedoshim Tih'yu - You shall be holy." We have discussed in d'vrai Torah the many ways of achieving holiness, spirituality and a set-aside feeling. In this Parasha Bechukotai, translated as "My Decrees," we read how God promised blessings if we work toward holiness and promised curses if we do not.
These curses, called "tochachah" (admonitions), are so horrendous that in many traditional synagogues they are whispered when the Torah portion is read. An abridged version of the blessings and curses are repeated in Deuteronomy Chapter 11. This makes up part of the Shema prayer in traditional sidurim (prayer books), but has been deleted from some liberal prayer books.
The liberal movements do not adhere to the traditional notion of reward and punishment by God. They do accept the idea of God as the true judge. They acknowledge that His judgment is not always understandable or discernible. We know that bad things do happen to good people. We also know that good things happen to bad people. However, how do we know who is truly bad and who is sincerely good? Those judgments are better left to God. We as Jews are correctly taught not to judge our fellows.
The emotional "grime" in which we find ourselves wallowing is punishment enough for those of us who have drifted away from holiness. Our Midrash says in Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:12 that "the gates of repentance are always open." Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote in his Collected Letters (Vol. I, page 162) that "no one who is a Jew can become a human being without knowing that he is a Jew, since this is the basis from which he can reach out to a higher humanity." In other words, the joy of living justly is its own reward.
As Jews who have a code of ethics to follow, the guilt that we feel inside when we ignore our mandate is punishment enough. As King David said in Psalm 16:07, "I bless God who is my counselor, but in the night, my inmost self instructs me."
The authors of the Torah and our great sages can only teach us. It is we who must study, choose and follow. Even for those who wish to live their lives without divine ethical guidance, at some point will understand the verse from Genesis 4:10, "Your brother's blood is calling out from the ground." When that realization comes to one who has lived with little spirituality, it is tochachah enough. That person is ready for the teshuvah of Jewish Spiritual Renewal.
If God had not commanded us to obey His mitzvoth, would we have an ethical imperative to behave properly? We know the concept of the seven Noachide Laws from Genesis that all men are commanded to obey. They parallel the Ten Commandments minus Shabbat and honoring one's parents. The "God Laws" are combined.
Are these ethics independent of Halakah (Jewish law)? And are ethics built into our system of Jewish laws? Many traditional views say no. We do as God commands and if ethical behavior is a benefit, fantastic. The liberal Jewish view however gives a resounding yes to both questions.
On the seal of my Alma Mater, the University of Pennsylvania, it is written, "Leges sin more vanae," "laws without morals are vanity." Since the Torah does allow us to drink wine and eat certain meat, does this mean we are allowed to be drunkards and gluttons? Maimonides clearly says that there must be an ethic independent of the Torah as we must abstain or do in moderation those things that Torah did not expressly forbid.
There is a command: "and you shall do what is right and good in the eyes of God." Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah talks numerous times in the Talmud of the value assigned to doing good outside of the context of a specific mitzvah. As spiritual Jews we do not do good for the sake of a reward. We do it because it is the right and moral thing to do.
When we do something not good we do teshuvah (repentance, returning, renewal). This is not because we are afraid of the curses we read in this portion, but because we each accept voluntarily the moral imperative to correct our wrongs. We do not live our lives obsessing over reward and punishment.
Our self-definition from Talmud Bavli Tractate Yevamot 79A sums up our views: "We are compassionate ones and bestowers of kindness." We might be eating pork if we were not commanded not to do so, but we certainly would not be committing murder if we were not commanded to not do so. This is one reason why the liberal rabbis deleted the verses of curses and blessings from their prayer books.
Liberal Jews have proclaimed themselves to be not bound by ritual Halakah. However, we strongly embrace the anthropo-mitzvoth. We, as we discussed a few parashot ago, must truly love our neighbors as ourselves. We have an obligation to go beyond the law when it comes to man-to-man obligations and behaviors.
Rabbi Yohanan said in Talmud Bavli Tractate Bava Metzia 30B that Jerusalem in 70 C.E. was destroyed because people followed "din Torah" (the Law of the Torah). He explained that they followed the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. They did not practice "lifnim mi Shurat ha Din" (beyond the letter of the Law).
They were destroyed. It is not just correct for a Jew to do ritual minutia while ignoring the plight of those around him. That would be keeping to the letter of the law, but not to the spirit. When we endeavor to keep to the spirit of the law, we progress toward holiness. We help fulfill the theme of Leviticus of Kedoshim Tih'yu (you shall be holy).
As we have seen, Jews have an obligation to go beyond the letter of the law. Our essence as Jung describes it is to know what it means to be a Jew. We have an obligation to study and to reason and not just to follow blindly. In Talmud Bavli Tractate Sanhedrin 74A, Rabbi Rava renders an opinion concerning the man who was given a choice to kill or be killed. Rava tells the man to allow himself to be killed because "who says your blood is redder than his?" The other rabbis agree with Rava even though no scripture is quoted. This is referred to as "s'vara," literally reasoning. Jewish reasoning, as Rabbi Y. Etshalom writes, "is the reasonable result of ethical and religious norms inculcated in Jewish culture and society."
Jewish tradition has always respected and valued life for its own sake. It is not just enough to be right; we must be good. We must not only follow the mitzvoth outlining our behaviors toward our fellows, we must go beyond them.
The Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, wrote, "For the want of the thing that you lack is in the indwelling Glory. For man is a part of God, and the want that is in the part is in the whole, and the whole suffers the want of the part. Therefore, let your prayer be directed to the want of the Whole."
When we are connected to the Divine Presence by holy acts, we are dwelling with God. The word for this presence, the Sheckinah, comes from the Hebrew shin-kuf-nun (to dwell). When we do our best to strive for holy spirituality we bring forth the Ruach Kodesh, the Holy Spirit.
The ultimate enlightenment of humanity is when we all act compassionately and lovingly toward one another according to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. This is when God will "pour out His Holy Spirit on all flesh." (Joel 2:28). Please note that the idea of the Holy Spirit is not Christian in origin. It is a Jewish concept borrowed by St. Paul (Rabbi Saul) in his development of the theology of the Godhead.
So from where do our blessings come? Where should we place our hope? Jeremiah in Chapter 17, Verse 13 from this week's Haftarah gives us the answer. "The Hope of Israel (Mickve Israel) is God." He teaches us not to depend of our fellow frail man's ways but to trust in God's teachings. In a later verse (17:14) we read what has become a prayer in our Amidah: "Heal me, God, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved."
Some of the first Jews who came to what is now the State of Georgia, USA in 1733, placed their faith in God. They believed that they were partners with God. They named their Congregation Mickve Israel - the Hope of Israel. It is the third oldest congregation in the United States and is located in Savannah, Georgia.
We ask God to help us, but we must also help ourselves. We ask God to heal us, but we must also heal ourselves. We ask God to grant us "rain in our season" (Lev. 26:04), but we must plant the seeds. We are the ones who are God's co-workers in Tikun Olam, the repair of the world.
By striving to do justice, do good deeds, act kindly and lovingly, with hope and trust in God, we hopefully will avoid the tochachah's disasters described in this parasha.