By Cantor Sheri Allen
Parashat B’Har / B’Chukotai
“Do not delude yourself into thinking that (divine) punishment will not come.”
This sobering warning from the Talmud was, perhaps, intended to be a reality check for us (or for those against us) who became a bit too comfortable with bending the rules that God gave us. Or perhaps it served to help provide the psychological comfort that, although people that do bad things might seemingly go unpunished in this world, who knows what awaits them later? This week’s Torah portion, B’Har/B’Chukotai, focuses on this whole theme of reward and punishment and the connection is abundantly clear: Follow God’s commandments and blessings will ensue; reject them and watch out!
Obedience to God, as outlined in the 13 opening verses of B’Chukotai, will result in plentiful harvests, peace, fertility, security and the ultimate blessing, God’s assurance that “I will be ever present in your midst.” The curses, or Tok-hecha (reproaches) for abandoning the mitzvot, take a bit longer to enumerate: Indeed, the next 31 verses describe horrific consequences; among them: “I will wreak misery upon you … your foes will dominate you, you shall flee though none pursue … I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes … your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.” You get the idea. This list culminates in the ultimate disgrace: exile and the loss of their special relationship with their God.
Of course, we all want to believe in ultimate justice: that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. But it depends on how we define that behavior. If we view the Torah through a different lens, we discover that behavior is mostly judged by how we treat others and our world.
The Holiness Code, encompassing the last several parashiyot and concluding with B’Chukotai, concentrates on fairness and equity in business dealings, our obligation to help the needy, respecting parents and elders, loving the stranger as yourself: the ethical and moral principles that guide us as individuals and citizens. And it certainly makes sense that if we abuse these relationships, they will surely suffer, leading to a breakdown of communication, estrangement, neglect, resentment, hate and, eventually, revenge. The punishment, therefore, is of our own making. We can only blame ourselves, not God.
The mitzvot keep us mindful not only of how we treat ourselves and others, but how we take care of the world as well. In this week’s parasha, we are commanded to let the earth rest every seven years, also known as the Shemitah or Sabbatical year. Even the land is entitled to a Shabbat once in a while! And it only follows that if we abuse the land, ignore the threat of global warning, the imminent extinction of certain species and continue to pollute the world with toxins, we will be subject to the negative consequences of our own behavior.
This whole concept of reward and punishment assumes that God has given human beings free will and the choice between good and evil is in our hands. Of course, unfairness, injustice, natural disasters, tragedies and simply bad luck will always exist in this world. But I don’t believe that there is necessarily a cause and effect at work here. Sometimes, as hard as we try to look for answers, blame or justification, some things are simply unexplainable.
If you’ve seen the Coen Brothers movie “A Serious Man” (one of my absolute favorites) this seemed, at least to me, to be their message. Although Judaism might not always have all the answers to the questions we seek, its brilliance lies in the fact that we know that generations before us have struggled with the same questions.
And through the mitzvot we attempt to confront the uncertainties of the world by taking positive action: by trying to repair it. Ultimately, despite what’s thrown at us, it’s how we react to it that matters. Judaism gives us a choice and commands us to choose life. And perhaps that is our true reward.
Cantor Sheri Allen is the co-founder of Makom Shelanu Congregation in Fort Worth.