a painting shows a long stream of people marching out from Jerusalem
"Flight of the Prisoners" by James Tissot, 1902, shows the eventual results of not heeding God's commands in this week's Torah portion: the Israelite expulsion from Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.

Finding comfort in blessings and curses

Leviticus 25:1- 27:34
Jeremiah 16:19- 17:14

We round a corner this Shabbat, as we conclude the book of Leviticus with its last two linked portions: Behar and Bechukotai.

Behar opens with the laws that the Israelite people must adhere to concerning sabbatical and jubilee years for the land. When the laws of Shabbat were first presented, it was made clear that the seventh day was to be a time of complete rest for everyone, whether the most prominent or the most humble community member. Here that same concept is extended: We learn that the environment the people will inhabit also needs a chance to lie fallow so that it can go on giving.

As with any idyllic vision, there is a complicating factor or two. Later Torah commentators, even as they stressed the ecological and spiritual benefits of these sabbatical years, were concerned about how poor people could get through them without working their land. The need to sustain the earth and the need to sustain its inhabitants are equally urgent obligations. Behar is about both needs. It moves from Divine assurance that there will be abundance during the sixth year, providing enough to eat in the seventh, to concrete commandments specifying how human beings must take responsibility for each other. Behar allows us to look at these issues in a way that does not force us to choose between doing right in one realm or right in another.

The companion portion to Behar takes us into somewhat different territory. Bechukotai opens with a litany of blessings that the Israelite people will enjoy once they make their final crossing into Canaan. If you follow my laws, God promises, prosperity will be yours. The rains will fall for you in their proper season. Your vineyards will overflow and you will eat your fill. In addition, the Israelites are told “you shall lie down untroubled by anyone” (Leviticus 26:6).

If they spurn God’s laws, however — if they forget who they are supposed to be and the path they are supposed to walk — the consequences will be disastrous. Wild beasts will attack their families and cattle, and their farmland and vineyards will wither and die. The relationship is excruciatingly clear: Do the right things — God will help you then. Stray from that path — God help you then!

At best, the notion that good deeds are always rewarded and wicked ones always punished is a fantasy, offering the illusion of more control over our lives and this world than we actually have. At worst, it is a punishing invitation to blame ourselves for the times we experience struggles we could not possibly have caused. “If good things happen to good people,” we reflexively wonder, “what does the fact that I am suffering say about me?”

In the words of Rabbi Na’amah Kelman: “Of course we know just how unfair life is. Every day, we witness evil and despair. We cry out against our personal and communal injustices. In this global village we now partake in every crisis, disaster, and never-ending images of inhumanity. We also witness beauty, and great acts of love, compassion, and heroism, miraculously defying of our imagination. In this great pendulum, what are we as individuals supposed to do to make a difference, to forge meaningful lives?”

That is a question for the ages. Jewish learning and teaching is predicated on the notion that questioning is a good and sustaining thing. But it can be endlessly painful when our questions fail to break out of reward-and-punishment theology and fall into a cycle of simplistic thinking and self-blame.

The Torah is talking to all of us in both portions — emphasizing that when we do our best to live lives of value, we open the door for more good possibilities to follow. Our actions have the potential to help others — whether in ways we know about at the time or in ways we may never know. When we forget that our choices matter —when we allow our behavior to sink to the lowest common denominator, whether or not we are “punished” in any of the colorful ways the Torah describes — we are betraying our potential to become better. In doing so, we are opening a different kind of door, one that takes us to a place where these behaviors become more and more acceptable to us. We risk alienating ourselves from the notions of communal welfare and collective responsibility that Behar and Bechukotai are all about.

May we all find an opening this Shabbat, to see the vision of Behar, and the blessings and curses of Bechukotai, not as an exact formula for what our lives will hold, but as a reminder of the power of our choices, and the significance of community. May we find readings that are inspiring and forgiving. We have never needed them more.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at [email protected].