Choices Have Consequences: Behar-Bechukotai

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.

Shabbat Shalom! – Behar-Bechukotai

Image: One of the mountains traditionally thought to be Mt. Sinai, this one in present-day Egypt. Photo by tamerlan/wikimedia.

What a mouthful! This week’s double portion has a long tongue-twisting name. Behar means “on the mountain” and it refers to Mount Sinai, where God spoke these words to Moses.

Bechukotai means “by my decrees” – chook is the Hebrew word for a commandment that does not have a logical explanation, it’s simply a commandment. For instance, while people have tried to come up with justifications for the laws of kashrut, in actual fact the only reason the Bible gives for keeping kosher is that God commanded it. The laws of kashrut are chookim (plural of chook.)

These two portions contain around 36 commandments, both mishpatim (laws with logical explanations) and chookim (laws without explanations.) They also close out the book of Leviticus. Thus we leave the Book of regulations for the Levites and next week we’ll be back in Numbers, or Bemidbar – in the wilderness!

Here are some divrei Torah from teachers around the internet this week:

Natural Miracles by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Patriarchy and Priesthood Join Forces to Undervalue Women’s Work by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Reduced to Poverty by Rabbi Nina J Mizrahi

Giving Charity is Not Easy Business by Rabbi Marc Katz

God, Too, is Lonely by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Shabbat shalom!


Shabbat Shalom! – Bechukotai

It’s hard to believe: we’re at the beginning of June, and the end of the book of Leviticus.

When we hear the end of a book of Torah chanted in synagogue, the reader chants the last verse and then follows it: “Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazek!” [Be strong, be strong, let us be strengthened!]

Jewish tradition calls attention to the many tensions and balances in human life.

We are individuals (“Be strong!”)

and we are members of a community (“Let us be strengthened!”)

We are responsible for ourselves (“Be strong!”)

and responsible for each other (“Let us be strengthened!”)

We are people of action (“Be strong!”)

and people who are continual, lifelong learners (“Let us be strengthened!”)

Tonight we shall begin another book of Torah (“Be strong!”)

but today we enjoy the fact that we have again read Leviticus. (“Let us be strengthened!”)


Divrei Torah on Parashat Bechukotai:

A Shabbat for the Earth – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

B’chukotai with Rabbi Ellie – Rabbi Eleanor Steinman (VIDEO)

Rebukes Remind Us That We Must Work Together – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

We Live in God’s Neighborhood – Rabbi Mark Borovitz (VIDEO)

On Civilization, Culture & True Wisdom – Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Torah, Consequences, and the Akiba Clause – Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

A Sense of Direction – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks