Bechukkotai: Why Obey?

May 29, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | Leave a comment

Why should the Israelites obey God’s rules?  The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Bechukotai (“By my decrees”), answers the question with a carrot and a stick.

The carrot is that if they do obey, God will reward them with abundant produce from their crops; no attacks by wild beasts; either peace, or victory if they choose to go to war; and God’s presence in their midst.1

The stick is much longer.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your soul is nauseated by my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant; then I on my part will do this to you: (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:14-16)

The first punishments God threatens are disease and raids by neighboring countries.  If the Israelites continue disobeying and gagging on God’s rules, the second round of punishments will be drought and crop failure.

Then the Torah changes the unacceptable attitude from nausea to either perverse opposition or disbelief.  God introduces the third round of punishments with:

And if you walk keri with me, and you are not willing to heed me, then I will go on striking at you …  (Leviticus 26:21)

keri (קֶרִי) = in perverse opposition; only by chance.

The word keri occurs only seven times in the Hebrew Bible, all seven in the Torah portion Bechukkotai.  Most older translations use the English word “contrary”, but some commentators posit that keri comes from the verb karah (קָרָה) = befell unexpectedly, happened by chance.2

Lion attack, Persepolis

When people in the Torah “walk with God”, they are following God’s rules and desires.  In this week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites walk in opposition to God, as if what happens to them comes only by chance and not by God’s will, then they will suffer.   In the third round of threats, God promises that wild beasts will kill their children and their cattle, and their roads will become empty.

The fourth round of threats begins:

And if these do not make you accept my discipline, and you walk keri with me, then I, even I, will walk by keri with you, and I will strike you …  (Leviticus 26:23-24)

Now God promises to oppose the Israelites and/or treat them as irrelevant to God’s will.  At this point God will let the enemies of the Israelites besiege their cities.  Everyone who crowds inside the city walls for shelter will be afflicted with disease and starve for lack of bread.

The fifth and final round of punishments also uses the word keri.

And if despite this you do not heed me, and you go with me by keri, then I will walk with you with a fury of keri, and I will punish you …  (Leviticus 26:27-28)

This time the starving Israelites will eat their own children, while God stands by.  God will destroy their hilltop shrines (because worshiping other gods is one of the ways the Israelites keep breaking God’s commandments).  Then their enemies will destroy their cities, the land will be desolated, and the people will be scattered in other countries.3

Assyrian & Babylonian Deportations

Modern scholars estimate that the list of blessings and punishments in this week’s Torah portion, like much of the book of Leviticus, was written sometime after the war of 589-587 BCE, when the Babylonian army finished conquering the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, and deported most of its upper classes and craftsmen.  (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire a century and a half before.)  So the five levels of punishment had already happened when God’s speech was written.

By framing history as God’s prediction (or threat) at Mt. Sinai, the Torah drives home the idea that the downfall of the Israelites of Judah was their own fault.  God warned them, but they continued to walk keri with God, so of course they suffered the ultimate punishments.

Guilt is more effective than fear

The Torah portion Bechukkotai also shows that escalating punishments do not work.  The only effects of experiencing the helplessness of being without God’s protection are misery and excessive fear.

And I will bring the remainder of you faint-hearted into the lands of your enemies.  The sound of blowing leaves will pursue them, and they will flee as if fleeing from the sword, and they will fall although nobody is pursuing.  (Leviticus 26:36)

The image of running away from blowing leaves (commonly translated into English as “a driven leaf”) emphasizes that the deported Israelites live in a state of continuous anxiety.

Then you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.  (Leviticus 26:38)

Being lost and eaten up may refer to death, or it may refer to assimilation.  Either way, there would be no more Israelites.  Nevertheless, God expects some of the exiles to feel not only faint-hearted, but also guilty.4  Once they recognize their guilt, there is hope for them.

Then they must confess their guilt and the guilt of their forefathers in failing to do their duty; that they were undutiful to me, and also that they walked by keri with me.  Indeed, I myself will walk by keri with them and I will bring them into the land of their enemies; perhaps that is when their uncircumcised heart will become humbled, perhaps that is when they will make amends for their wrongdoing. (Leviticus 26:40-41)

When the diminishing Israelites do confess and repent, they “circumcise” their hearts, making them open and sensitive to God’s word.  At that point God promises to remember the covenant with their ancestors Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and with the people God rescued from Egypt.5  The implication is that then God will rescue the remaining Israelites from Babylon and bring them back to their former land.

Why do the Israelites disobey and oppose their God?

Here are my favorite theories:

  1. When people stop studying God’s rules, they no longer understand them, so they don’t bother to obey them. They justify their disobedience by deciding they are superior to those who blindly obey stupid laws. Only someone who understands the reasons for divine laws can obey them with love.6
  2. When bad things happen, it is human nature to blame someone else and avoid introspection. We might blame other people, or we might blame God. Since we do not change our own behavior, nothing changes in the world. 7
  3. When we are taught only in terms of physical reward and punishment, we develop an unhealthy relationship with the authority figure. Either we mindlessly do anything to win the authority figure’s approval, or we live in continual fear, or we come to despise the authority figure and rebel against the rules.

What changes their minds about God?

Fear leads to temporary obedience, and reward and punishment work on a simple level with non-human animals and small children.  But as humans learn to think, we make their own judgments about right and wrong.  In this week’s Torah portion, people return to obeying and trusting God only when they come to believe they did something wrong, and feel guilty about it.  Then they want to make amends.

The very act of making amends by returning to their religion gives the Israelites meaning and purpose in their lives.  They can once again feel God’s presence in their midst.

*

I know I will never be a wholly observant Jew.  Jewish halakhah, the “way to walk”, is a corpus of religious laws refined over the centuries from the Talmud’s discussions of the laws in the Torah.  Some of these laws remain meaningless to me even when I study them.  Therefore (since I do not belong to a tight orthodox community where strict observance is at least good manners) I do not bother to observe those particular rules.

But I work hard to do the morally right thing, and whenever I realize I have failed, I feel guilty, and I do what I can to atone.  I find that virtue really is its own reward, bringing me courage and calmness even in adverse physical circumstances.  I also persist in noticing all creation with awe and wonder, which leads to gratitude and the feeling that life is meaningful.  Because I work on obeying moral principles and maintaining an attitude of awe and gratitude, I believe I am serving God with joy, not walking with God by keri.

May each of us find meaning in life.  And may we treat one another with mutual respect, so we can avoid the dead end of an authority figure commanding obedience—or else.

  1. See my post Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.
  2. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that keri means unintentionally; going with God unintentionally is a form of rejection (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 951). 21st-century scholar Robert Alter translated keri as “encounter (against)” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 663).  The Chabad translation is “happenstance” in  www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9927.
  3. Leviticus 26:16-33.
  4. Leviticus 26:39.
  5. Leviticus 26:42, 26:45.
  6. Based on Hirsch, ibid., pp. 944-945; and Or Torah (Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, 1804), translation by Arthur Green, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 310-311.
  7. Based on Adin Even-Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 271.

Haftarat Bechukkotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me

June 2, 2016 at 10:40 am | Posted in Bechukkotai, Jeremiah | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Bechukkotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 16:19-17:14.

The God depicted in the Torah has sudden fits of anger and smites large groups of people, the innocent along with the guilty. No wonder so many people in the books of Exodus and Numbers do not trust this god to lead them safely to a new land! Yet the prophets from Moses on insist that trusting God—and following God’s rules—will be rewarded.

build houses and plant vineyards 2For example, this week’s Torah portion, Behukkotai  (“By My decrees”) opens with this divine promise:

If you go by My decrees, and My commands you observe, and you do them … Then [your] threshing will overtake [your] grape harvest, and [your] grape harvest will overtake your sowing, and you will eat your bread to satiation, and you will rest labetach in your land. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3, 5)

labetach (לָבֶטַח) = in security, with a feeling of safety. (From the root verb batach (בּטח) = trust, rely on, feel safe.)

The next verse shows that the feeling of safety will be justified:

And I will put peace in the land, and you will life down and nothing will frighten you, and I will keep bad beasts from the land, and a sword will not cross your land. (Leviticus 26:6)

This promise is never fulfilled in the Bible. Many of its books point out that the Israelites keep veering off the right path, disobeying the rules and worshiping other gods. It is their fault, not God’s, that they are never safe in their land.

In this model, God judges the people as a group; an individual, however virtuous, suffers the fate of his whole city or country. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah God sends the Babylonians to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, because its people are acting immorally and worshiping other gods.

First Temple-2Some Jerusalemites think God will keep them safe because they have an impressive Temple stocked with priests. But the prophet Jeremiah warns:

Do not tivtechu in yourselves, in words of deception, saying: The temple of God, the temple of God, the temple of God is these [buildings]. (Jeremiah 7:4)

tivtechu (תִּבְטְחוּ) = you trust.  (Also from the root batach.)

The king of Judah and his officials think they can rely (batach) on fortifications, or stored-up wealth, or a rescue by the Egyptian army, or the words of prophets who contradict Jeremiah.

This week’s haftarah includes a poem on the futility of relying on other human beings, and the rewards of relying only on God.

Thus said God:

Cursed is the man yivtach in humankind

And makes flesh his strength;

He turns away his mind from God.

He is like a bare tree in the desert valley…

Blessed is the man yivtach in God;

And God is mivtacho.

Fruit (peaches)He is like a tree planted by water:

By a stream it sends forth its roots,

And it does not notice when summer heat comes,

And its leaves are luxuriant;

In a year without rain it does not worry,

And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:5-8)

yivtach (יְבְטַח) = who trusts, who relies on, who feels safe. (Also from the root batach.)

mivtacho (מִבְטַחוֹ) = what he trusts. (Also from the root batach.)

This poem (like psalms 8, 31, 52, and 56) takes a personal view of trusting God, and promises that individuals who rely on God are rewarded with long and fruitful lives—perhaps even if most of their people reject God. Since the word batach covers feelings as well as deeds, Jeremiah is promising a reward for individuals who have the right feelings about God. (See my earlier post, Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.)

Later in the book of Jeremiah we get an example of an individual who has the batach feeling about God. Just before the Babylonian army breaches the walls of Jerusalem, God tells Jeremiah to give a message to a Kushite servant of the king called Eved-Melekh, “servant of the king”.

bitachonGo and say to Eved-Melekh the Kushi: Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: … I will certainly save you, and you will not fall by the sword, and you will keep your life—because batachta in me, declares God. (Jeremiah 39:16, 18)

Kushi (כּוּשִׁי) = Kushite; a dark-skinned person from Kush, the land south of Egypt (now Ethiopia), or a descendant of a Kishite.

batachta (בָּטַחְתָּ) = you trusted, you felt safe.

In what way did the Kushi trust in God?

The year before, four officials of the king’s court in Jerusalem heard Jeremiah tell the people that God is giving the city to the Babylonian army, and whoever stays will die, but whoever defects to the Babylonians will live.

And the officials said to the king: Let this man be killed, please, because he is weakening the hands [morale] of the remaining soldiers in the city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking this way…And King Zedekiah said: Hey, he is in your hands, because the king can do nothing to oppose you. (Jeremiah 38:4-5)

The king feels as though he has to act as if he trusts his officials; he does not dare oppose them, even though he knows Jeremiah is a true prophet of God.

Then they took Jeremiah and they threw him down into the pit of Malkiyahu, son of the king, which was in the court of the guard, and they sent Jeremiah to his death. But Eved-Melekh the Kushi, a eunuch in the palace of the king, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the pit. And the king was sitting in the Gate of Benjamin. So Eved-Melekh went out from the palace of the king, and to spoke to the king, saying: My lord the king, these men have done evil in all they did to Jeremiah the prophet! They threw him down into the pit, and he will die below from starvation…

Jeremiah and Kushi and pitThe Kushi, a palace eunuch, might hesitate to speak against four powerful court officials. He might also hesitate to interrupt the king when he is dispensing justice in the city gate. But Eved-Melekh pleads for Jeremiah’s life without worrying about his own fate. And King Zedekiah seems relieved to have someone interrupt him and speak on Jeremiah’s behalf.

Then the king commanded Eved-Melekh the Kushi, saying: Take from here three men and raise Jeremiah the prophet from the pit before he dies. (Jeremiah 39:10)

Eved-Melekh saves Jeremiah’s life, and the prophet returns to the regular prison, where he gets bread and water until the Babylonian soldiers destroy Jerusalem about a year later. Then the Babylonians free Jeremiah and send him to another town in Judah. The four court officials do not take revenge on the Kushi eunuch, and we can assume that when the Babylonian general decides which Jerusalemites will die, which will be deported to Babylon, and which will be moved to another town in Judah, the Kushi is among those whose life is spared.

Eved-Melekh’s feeling of trust in God lets him do the right thing and rescue God’s prophet at the risk of his own life. This palace servant is especially remarkable because he is an immigrant from another country—who nevertheless serves the God of Israel better than Judah’s native officials and king do.

The Torah portion in Leviticus says that when all the people follow God’s rules, then God will reward them with real security, and as a result they will feel safe (labetach) in their land. But not even Moses can get all the people to follow God’s rules.

The haftarah from Jeremiah says that when individuals feel safe (yivtach) with God, then they are motivated to do good deeds, and as a result God rewards them with life and fruitfulness.

The book of Jeremiah does not say whether the eunuch Kushi becomes fruitful in some way other than having children. But God does reward him with life.

In my own life, I admit, I rarely feel safe enough to speak out in threatening situations or to oppose the plans of the powerful. But when I actually do, I feel filled with a spirit that I did not know I had, perhaps a divine spirit. And that grounded elation is its own reward, as I move forward with new courage and good deeds, fruitful and alive.

Bechukkotai: Gender, Age, and Personal Value

May 14, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Men are worth more than women.  It says so in the Torah—or does it?

A list of the equivalent value in silver of each of eight classes of people appears in Bechukkotai (“by My decrees”), the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra:

Weighing scales by Cornelius MatsysWhen someone undertakes a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God— (Leviticus/Vayikra 27:2)

erekekha (עֶרְכְּךֳ) = the equivalent value, assessment.

—then the erekekha of the male of age 20 years up to age 60 years, erekekha will be 50 shekels of silver according to the shekel-weight of the Holy place. And if she is a female, erekekha will be 30 shekels. (Leviticus 27:3-4)

And if from age 5 years up to age 20 years, erekekha will be for the male 20 shekels, and for the female 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:5)

And if from the age of a month up to age 5 years, erekekha will be for the male 5 shekels of silver, and erekekha for the female 3 shekels of silver. (Leviticus 27:6)

And if from age 60 years and above, if male, erekekha will be 15 shekels, and for the female, 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:7)

In this lis of equivalent values, males are assigned a higher erekekha than females, and adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are assigned a higher erekekha than children or seniors.  Individual differences between people within each of the eight classes of persons are disregarded.

What does undertaking “a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God” mean?

Leviticus includes a number of mandatory gifts to the sanctuary or the priests who serve there.  All Israelite households are required to give:

* tithes.

* the firstborn of their livestock and a portion of their first fruits.

* the prescribed animal and grain offerings for relieving guilt and thanking God for good fortune.

* the prescribed offerings for being readmitted into the community after a period of ritual impurity.

The tithes and the first farm products are like annual taxes or membership dues.  For the ancient Israelites, there was no separation of temple and state; every citizen was also a member of the religious community and had to help support the religious rituals at the temple.  Individuals had to make additional payments to support the rituals for specified situations in their own lives.

I daresay most Israelites were glad to be part of a system that connected them with their God through concrete actions.  And sometimes one of them had a religious impulse, and felt moved to pledge an extra donation.

Ancient Israelites could not do this by simply writing a check.  In fact, even coins were not invented until the sixth century B.C.E. (A shekel was a measure of weight in silver, rather than a coin.) So the Torah portion Bechukkotai considers four other things that could be donated:  a field, a house, part or all of an edible animal, and the erekekha of a person.

The Talmud tractate Arakhin, written during the first few centuries C.E. by rabbis analyzing this passage in the Torah, states that either a man or a woman could make this vow.  A person often dedicated his or her own erekekha to the temple in Jerusalem.  But someone could also vow to donate the erekekha of any person belonging to him or her at the time—i.e. someone the vower owned and could legally sell.  In that era, people could sell their slaves or their own underage sons and daughters.

When someone made the vow, a priest would collect a token pledge.  Then sometime later, the vower would come to the temple and fulfill his or her vow by paying the erekekha in silver.

Why donate the equivalent value of a person?

Wouldn’t it be simpler to vow to give a certain weight of silver to the sanctuary?  Why bring a person into the equation?

One theory is that the system of erekekha was developed to replace the custom of giving human beings to God, either by sacrificing them at the altar or by dedicating them to service at a temple.

Human sacrifice was widespread in the ancient Near East, and is mentioned several times in the Bible.  In the book of Judges, an Israelite general named Yiftach (Jephthah in English) vows that if God lets him vanquish the enemy and return safely, he will give God whatever comes out the door of his house by making it a burnt offering.  His daughter comes out the door.  She is sacrificed.

“Samuel Dedicated by Hannah” by Frank W.W. Topham

 

 

In the first book of Samuel, Hannah vows that if God lets her have a son, she will give him to God for “all the days of his life”.  Once her son, Samuel, is weaned, she brings him to the temple in Shiloh to serve as an assistant to the high priest.

The book of Leviticus, on the other hand, describes the practices of the priests during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem, centuries after the period described in Judges and Samuel.  Human sacrifice has been banned, and the priests and Levites who serve at the temple in Jerusalem inherit their positions.

But perhaps some people still made vows that if God would do something extraordinary for them, then they would do something extraordinary for God. And perhaps some people simply wanted to be consecrated to the temple, even though they could not be priests or Levites.

One way to achieve this was to replace the donation of a human being with the donation of the human being’s erekekha in silver.

The time lag between the vow and the delivery of the erekekha is not explained in either the Bible or the Talmud.  Perhaps some people felt moved to make an unusual vow before they had saved up enough silver to fulfill it.

Or perhaps the time lag was important because between the time of the vow and the time the silver was delivered, the person whose erekekha was vowed was considered consecrated—marked out as having a holy purpose.

Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made you consecrated to God for a period of time.  Unlike a monk or nun (or a nazirite in ancient Israel—see my blog post Naso: Let Down Your Hair), you would continue with your usual life.  But the meaning of your life would be different.

Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made your servant or your young child consecrated to God for a period of time.

Why set the value according to age and gender?

The erekekha of a person is not his or her market value. The eight classifications according to age and gender do bear some relation to a person’s ability to perform work; generally speaking, adults between the ages of 20 and 60 can do more work than the very old or the very young, and men can do more literal heavy lifting than women.  But the market value of an individual sold as a slave varied according to the person’s physical and mental condition.  (Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 2a)  The eight assessments for a person’s erekekha disregard any individual strengths or weaknesses.

The assignment of values according to age and gender probably reflects the prejudices of society in the ancient Near East, which was dominated by men who were heads of households. Yet Judith Antonelli, in her book In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, argues that the lower erekekha for women indicates that the ancient Israelites respected women more than their neighbors did.  “…the lower prices for women reflect the Torah’s prohibition of sexual slavery. Where female slaves are officially used for sex as well as for labor—that is, kept in harems as concubines—they are in greater demand than male slaves and thus command a higher price.”

In other words, even slave women had value as persons, not merely as sex objects.

So the amount of each erekekha reflected the realities of an agricultural society in which brawn mattered, free men dominated, and children were possessions.  But vowing to pay the erekekha of a woman, child, or old person, meant respecting that person’s value.  By consecrating him or her to God for the period of your vow, you were assigning a high value to your slave or your child.

And when you consecrated yourself to God by vowing to pay your own erekekha, you were assigning a high value to your own life.

Today our systems of religious worship are very different.  But I wonder if we could devise a new way to consecrate our own life, or the life of someone in our family, for a period of time until we achieve a goal. It would change the way we treated ourselves or the other person.  And everyone, of any age and gender, might be worth more.

 

Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward

May 11, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai, Jeremiah | 2 Comments
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If you follow all the rules, you will be rewarded; if you do not, you will be punished.

This makes sense when the boss is human. But this week’s Torah portion, Bechukkotai (“by my decrees”), claims that the same formula applies when the boss is God.

If you go by my decrees and observe my commands and do them, I will give you rains in their season, and the earth will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-4)

The Torah lists other rewards that God promises, including abundant food, peace and security, victory over enemies, and fertility.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your nafshot gag on my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant, then I on my part will do this to you: I will appoint panic over you, the consumptive sickness and the fever, using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh. And you will sow seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it. (Leviticus 26:14-16)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ), plural nafshot  = throat, appetite, embodied soul. (See my previous post: Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul.)

God adds many other punishments for rejecting the rules, including fear, wild beasts, attacking armies, pestilence, famine, and cannibalism. Cities will be ruined, and the Israelites will be scattered in exile.

The problem with this promise of material rewards for following God’s rules, and physical punishments for rejecting God’s rules, is that the world does not work that way. Bad things do happen to good people, as the book of Job points out.

The haftarah reading from the Prophets that always accompanies the Torah portion Bechukkotai takes the reward and punishment formula to a different level. Most scholars agree that this reading from the book of Jeremiah (16:19-17:14) is a collection of seven separate poems. The third poem, Jeremiah 17:5-8, does not talk about obeying God’s decrees and laws; instead, it considers a person’s inner feelings about God.

Thus says God:

Cursed is the man who yivtach in humankind,

And makes flesh his strength,

And whose leiv turns away from God.

He is like a juniper in the desert

That does not notice any good coming.

He dwells in a stone-field in the wilderness,

A salt-plain that is not inhabited. (Jeremiah/Yermiyahu 17:5-6)

yivtach (יִבְטַח) = trusts, feels safe, is confident.

leiv (לֵב) = heart; inner self, the seat of thoughts and feelings; attention, inclination.

Here, the curse falls on those whose thoughts and feelings reject God. They become bitter atheists, trusting only human power. Their punishment is that they become depressed and unable to see anything good; their souls become undernourished, deficient in the water of life; and they feel abandoned.

The blessing comes to those who maintain their attachment to God.

Blessed is the man who yivtach in God;

God will happen from his trust. (Jeremiah 17:7)

Perhaps Jeremiah is saying that God happens to people when they trust in God. The poem goes on to describe the man who trusts in God:

He is like a tree planted beside water

That sends out its roots beside a stream,

And does not notice any heat coming.

Upon it are fresh green leaves,

And in a year of drought it is not worried;

It does not stop bearing fruit. (Jeremiah 17:8)

Those who depend on God rather than humans for their sense of security are rewarded, Jeremiah says. They do not worry about anything bad approaching, because their souls are nourished by a water of life that never runs out. Therefore, their efforts and projects continue to bear fruit.

Jeremiah’s poem can be read as stating a psychological truth: trusting in God nourishes your heart and mind; abandoning all hope of God leads to sterile depression. Even if following God’s rules in your actions in the world does not necessarily bring a worldly reward, there are still rewards and punishments for your attitude toward God—and they are internal.

Is Jeremiah’s claim true for us today?

My first impulse is to say no. I know some happy atheists who believe that humans are basically good, despite the evil some people do, and there is hope for a better world. They find satisfaction in the company of other human beings, and they do productive work.

I also know some religious people who claim that they trust God and know that God will make everything will work out for the best—but they say it with either the glazed smile of self-hypnosis, or an edge of desperation.

On the other hand, now that I am 60 years old, I am beginning to taste the pleasures of acceptance. I no longer speculate on whether humans are destroying the world; I no longer assume the people I love will still be with me in my old age. Neither do I place my trust in the anthropomorphic God described in the Torah, since I cannot believe in a god who makes plans and decisions like a human being.

But I think that sometimes God happens to me. I see or hear something beautiful, and my heart lifts, and I am filled with joy and gratitude—and a sense of security, if not trust, in being part of the big picture. In a year of trouble I still worry—but not as much as I used to.  Perhaps I finally have a few roots in the stream of the divine.

May God happen to everyone who needs it.  And may all our souls be nourished, so we can continue to produce fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul

May 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | 1 Comment

The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra, Bechukkotai (by my decrees), makes it clear that the covenant between God and the children of Israel is a two-way street.  If you obey all my rules, God says, then I’ll be a good god to you, giving you ample food, peace, and descendants.  If you reject some of my rules, then I’ll reject you, and punish you for several pages.

Reading through the details this year, I noticed the importance of how you translate the Hebrew word nefesh.  The list of rewards under If you go by my decrees (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:3) concludes:

I will place my home (dwelling-place) among you, and my nefesh will not reject you.  I will walk around in your midst, and I will be a god to you, and you will be a people to me.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:11-12)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite; throat; animating soul (what makes humans and animals alive); individual person, personality; mood, emotional life.

The list of results from not going with God’s decrees begins:

And if you reject my decrees, and if your nefesh abhors my laws, [so you are] no longer doing all my commands, voiding my covenant–then I on my part will do this to you: I will appoint panic over you, the consumptive sickness and the fever, using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh; and you will sow your seeds in vain, for your enemies will eat them.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:15-16)

Suppose we focus on the nefesh as the throat, the location of the appetite for physical food.  Robert Alter took this tack when he translated my nefesh will not reject you as  “I shall not loathe you”, and explained that a literal translation would be “my throat will not expel you”, i.e. I will not retch in disgust over you.  Similarly, if your nefesh rejects my laws means “if you retch in disgust over my laws”.

Continuing to translate nefesh as “throat”,  the fever of using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh becomes “inflamed eyes and sore throat”.  These could be either disease symptoms, or a description of a person who has been crying for a long time.

The advantage of viewing nefesh as “throat” is the emotional impact of imagining God retching with disgust, and imagining ourselves sobbing in anguish.  What a motivation for following every one of God’s rules, instead of picking and choosing!

On the other hand, suppose we translate nefesh as the animating soul that gives the body life and desires.  Then my nefesh will not reject you assigns a different anthropomorphic metaphor to God.  It means that if we  go with God’s decrees, God will continue to be alive to us.  God will also desire to make a home with us and walk around in our midst—to be close to us.  (See the translation of Leviticus 26:11-12 above.)

The phrase if your nefesh rejects my laws then means “if you lose your appetite for my laws” and “if you become as if dead to my laws”.  The result of this attitude is that God will fill you with terror and make you sick, and you’ll suffer the fever of using up the eyes and wearing away the nefesh.  This might mean that you will see less and less of the truth, and feel more and more dead inside.

The bottom line in this covenant between God and the Israelites  is that if you want to be alive to God and desire God, you must also be aware of and desire all of God’s decrees, laws, and commandments.  If you reject the divine rules that you don’t like, you lose your connection with God.

This tells me I’d be a lousy Israelite.  There are lots of rules in the Torah that stick in my throat, rules that I have no appetite for, that my soul is dead to.  For example, the technology of animal sacrifice obviously worked for most ancient Israelites, at least until the time of the prophet Isaiah.  But all the rules about animal sacrifices disgust me.  Jewish authorities point out that without a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Jews have no place to make animal sacrifices, so we don’t have to follow the rules about them.  But this rational explanation does not comfort me.  My most visceral soul, my nefesh, still feels outrage at the very thought of killing animals in order to draw closer to God.

Does this mean I can never walk with God?  I hope not.  After all, the rabbis of 2,000 years ago, as quoted in the Talmud, “interpreted” many of the rules in the Torah until they came out quite different.  Also, rabbis since Talmudic times have made their judgments by using the same general standards, but applying them differently according the particulars of each case.

Today, we can’t help but pick and choose which specific rules to follow.  But we can still apply the same general moral standards to each particular situation.  The danger for us is that we might pick and choose when to follow our moral standards.

Suppose one is fair with other people—except when one can’t resist cheating them; or kind to others—except when one does not feel like it.  Then one’s inner vision fails, and one’s nefesh becomes flimsy.  As it says in Leviticus, the spirit of God will no longer walk  or find a home on such a person.

May we all be blessed with the strength and wisdom we need to keep working on ethical behavior.  May each of us develop an appetite (nefesh) for goodness, and sow seeds of kindness everywhere.  Then we will be rewarded with a harvest of aliveness (nefesh), and holiness will dwell with us wherever we walk.

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