Image: An Antarctic glacier calves into the surrounding sea, as even the coldest places in the world warm and cause the ocean to rise. Image under copyright.
Parashat Bechukotai records blessings and curses for keeping or breaking the commandments. At first blush this is oversimplified Deuteronomic theology: “Be good, and good things will happen. Be bad, and you will be sorry.” This theology does not bear the strain of ordinary experience: we see bad things happen to good people every day.
However, if we look more closely at the passage, there is more to discuss. The “you” is plural: these are corporate blessings and curses that fall not upon single lives but upon the whole of the people. Bechukotai warns us that if we as a people disregard Torah we can expect consequences.
The sages taught that we should treat others decently even if only to keep the peace: “Our rabbis taught: we provide for the gentiles’ poor with Israel’s poor, we visit gentiles’ sick with Israel’s sick, and we bury the gentiles’ dead with Israel’s dead, due to the ways of peace.” (Gittin 61a) As a result, most Jewish service organizations serve not only Jews but anyone in need who applies.
Another example: If we abuse creation, we can expect nature to go awry. Midrash teaches: When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it (l’takein).” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13) I feel this midrash every time I see another way that climate change is upending our lives. I can make the greenest choices possible for myself, but without the actions of others, I cannot make enough of a difference. We are commanded as a people to take these things seriously. As a people, we need to make better choices.