Parashat B’chukkotai 5784

30 May 2024 – 22 Iyyar 5784

Rabbi Gershon Silins


Or Else! This week’s Torah reading, Bechukotai, could be summarized with those two words. Reading it, I was reminded of something my mother used to say, if I was doing something she wanted to discourage. “If you don’t cut it out, I will do something. I won’t tell you what, keep doing it and you’ll find out.” I immediately wanted to know what it was going to be, and she wouldn’t tell me. I didn’t want to take the risk of something really not nice, so I stopped. Years later, I asked her what the secret threat was, and she said, “I couldn’t think of anything, so I said I wouldn’t tell you. It seemed to work.” In our reading for this week, God doesn’t keep any secrets; the rewards and punishments are laid out in excruciating detail.

God first sweetens the deal: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. … You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.” Best carrot ever.

Soon, however, comes the stick: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever … you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues. And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins. … I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.

And then there’s a promise of mercy. The earth, having had, by virtue of the exile of its inhabitants, a sabbatical of the kind commanded in the previous reading, bears fruit again, and God promises to make the hearts of Israel’s enemies faint and their attacks fruitless.

Ironically, God’s promises and threats turn on the children of Israel obeying the commandment to observe the sabbatical year for their fields and vineyards. This was a system of allowing the land to rest every seven years, and in that seventh year, the people would live on the extra big harvest that God promised for the sixth year. Unless nature was more predictable in biblical times than it has been since, this is a system that could not reliably work, nor was it practiced outside the land of Israel. It’s as if God knew these commandments were unworkable and so doubled down on persuading the children of Israel to follow them.

The system may not have worked, and the punishments and rewards may be unpersuasive, but there is something to learn here. The larger message embedded in the portion and made clear by God is that the land wasn’t theirs to own, it was theirs to work and live on, but the ultimate owner was God. This reminded the Israelites that they were not in charge, God was. They may have wanted to see themselves as powerful, but they were not the masters. It is in the acknowledgment of weakness that they could find a different kind of strength.

Today, we live in a world that frequently reminds us that we are not in charge, though we continue to think we are. The pandemic, fast becoming a memory instead of a reality, and the increasingly undeniable signs of climate change and instability, are teaching those who are willing to learn that we cannot worship ourselves and continue on paths that ignore the reality we see around us. It is our very success that persuades us that we are powerful, and the more powerful we become, the greater the distance there is to fall.

The 2011 movie Margin Call answered a question that I had wondered about: why did investment bankers in the era before the financial crash of 2008 need so much money? They were already enormously wealthy. But it becomes clear as the movie progresses that they have made financial commitments based on having enormous incomes forever, and when the dam breaks, they must desperately sell off the firm’s worthless assets in a market that hasn’t quite realized how bad things will be.

This is the attitude that the Torah here condemns. It says, you don’t control the world or what happens on your land, and the only way you survive in the long run is to follow commandments that are based on something other than eternal profit; you must behave honourably, care for the less fortunate, and protect the land today for the hope of long term prosperity for you and your community. The lack of ultimate control, combined with the degree of discipline required to live responsibly, is a difficult balance, and we aren’t doing very well at it. Rather than smiling at the naivety of our biblical ancestors, who thought that God would reward the resting of the land in the seventh years by always sending good crops in the sixth, we might instead look to our own naivety in thinking that we are more immune to harm than they were. We are not.

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