The odds in favor of blessings

By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
Parashat Bechukotai

Visiting the library, I overheard two teens in the reference section. One asked, “What are all those books with the same color cover?” The other said, “That’s the encyclopedia.” The first one scratched his head and said, “Wow! Someone printed out all of Wikipedia?”

In pre-cloud computing days, “printing out” an encyclopedia made sense. Times change. There is still value in printed books and encyclopedias just as there is also value in data accessed on the internet. In both cases, it is up to us to judge the value. Either way, there is both blessing and curse.

In our covenant with God, described in our portion called Bechukotai, the terms of the contract seem pretty cut-and-dried. God says, “These are my laws.” Here are the blessings that will come if you keep them: “You will have sunshine in the summer, rain in the rainy season, crops that will grow so quickly that you will barely plant them before you are ready to harvest, all the good things in life: health and happiness and freedom from your enemies.” Here are the curses that will follow if you disobey: “Illness and hunger, strife with enemies, crops that do not grow and when they grow they will feed the mouths of raiders who steal them from you, floods instead of rain, drought instead of sunshine.”

Placing this covenant review at the end of Leviticus was purposeful. Leviticus is like the of Jewish regulations. Leviticus puts everything out there in detail: from the command to love your neighbor right down to the proper underwear priests should wear in the Temple. Did our ancient kinfolk literally believe that if we kept all these commandments God would bless us and if we didn’t God would curse us sevenfold for disobeying?

Yes, in fact. Each covenant code in the Torah concludes with the promise of blessings for obedience and specific, even horrifying, curses for disobedience. The same was true throughout the ancient Near East. Everywhere the gods were called on to bless and curse. The famous Code of Hammurabi ends (in my rendition), “If the king after me heeds the words inscribed on my monument may the gods enlarge his empire like mine and may he lead his people in justice. If that king does not heed the words inscribed on my monument may the gods destroy his royal splendor, break his scepter and curse his destiny.”

Nearly identical blessings and curses are inscribed at the end of land agreements engraved on boundary stones, dedication statements engraved for ancient temples and treaties between nations. In Leviticus, the ultimate blessings and the ultimate curses are very similar to those of other nations. So much for how the Holiness Code ends.

The meaning for today cannot be the same as it was for our ancestors. In between are worlds of rabbis, commentators, mystics and modernity. All were serious folks anxious to see God’s moral and ethical laws followed but not prone to guilt, threats and carrots on sticks. To their way of thinking and to mine, people should do what is right because living is a sacred task, a task that allows us to be holy, to feel holy, to behave in holy ways, without becoming self-righteous and sanctimonious. When we read, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), it should sound a challenge to us. We are commanded to make holiness manifest in the real world — to redeem the captives; to feed and clothe the poor, the orphan and the widow; to right the wrongs of the societies we create.

Our chore in this life is not to be perfect, but to strive for perfection. The covenant shows us the way, tells us to be responsible for our own behavior and gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead. The odds are in your favor if you live a consecrated life; the odds are seven to one against you if you do not. But it is all up to you.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel is a member of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Dallas and the author of “How to Get God on Your Side: 100 Ways to Connect with God,” available wherever fine books are sold.

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