We know this Torah portion as B’chukotai, but another name is Parashat HaToch’chah — the portion of reproach. It contains a list of curses so terrible that traditionally the Torah reader chants them quickly and in a hushed tone so as not to call attention to them. And no one wants that aliyah! The curses are the punishment for disobedience, and they must have truly struck fear in the hearts of our ancestors.
B’chukotai has always been a challenge for me. The idea of reward and punishment by a loving or angry God does not sit well in a world where innocent children and good adults suffer needlessly. How many people have chosen a life of g’milut chasadim, “acts of love and kindness,” but subsequently experienced curses, not the blessings that are promised? How many have been devoted, active members of the community through worship and good deeds, only to experience illness or joblessness or any number of non-blessings?
The theology may have fit in the biblical world and understood in a collective sense, but I know that in today’s world, I am not alone in my discomfort. We are, however, reminded that we are challenged and hopefully encouraged to recognize our ability to choose. The parashah focuses our attention on our human capacity and obligation to make choices, not just any, but choices that are for a blessing. And although I am unsettled with the concept of God intervening by meting out rewards and punishments, there is no question that our behavior has consequences for the people around us and consequences for ourselves.
Everyday in our dealing with people, with the created world, and with God, we each are told you may act in the world in such a way that increases blessings or increases curses. And since we never know what any single day, including today, will bring, we are always standing at a crossroads. At each moment of each day, we make decisions about how we ourselves, will react to the circumstances we encounter as they are, not as we wish they would be. It is less difficult to make a choice that will be for a blessing when everything is as we believe it should be, when we’re in a good frame of mind, when the world is going the way we determine is the right way. However, how do we choose to behave when we are under duress, under circumstances that are not to our liking? Are we loving, gentle, respectful, or are we impatient, harsh, removed?
Every day gives us opportunities to respond as menchen, as human beings, in large and small ways: by being kind and hospitable to family and friends, by waiting patiently as someone fumbles to find the exact change at the grocery store; by giving recognition for work well done.
Even if I believe that God cannot punish or reward every individual or even a nation, we certainly reap the intrinsic rewards when we engage in behaviors that are for a blessing, and we suffer the internal punishment, the guilt, the sadness, and the feelings of emptiness when we do not.
I am certainly calmer, happier, and more fulfilled, more complete when I respond at my best self, behaving as a mench, as a person who might just be the reason that someone smiles that day. When I think of behaviors that are for a blessing, I think of “I-Thou” relationships – God moments, putting being kind before being right, without criticism. It isn’t that it is so difficult to do, but it sometimes takes effort and concentration. It means taking a breath or two before speaking harsh words, realizing that where there is judgement, there is little room for a feeling of connection or love. There are infinite possibilities of actions that may seem trivial, but they can have long term and broad repercussions. A touch, an arm around, a word of encouragement, a determination to see the face of God when we look at another human being – this for me, speaks to the heart of what Judaism teaches about what it means to be human. The mitzvot teach us to recognize and appreciate life’s blessings, cultivating in us an attitude of sensitivity and gratitude – and we are, indeed, intrinsically rewarded when we fulfill them.
The blessings we get poured upon us in this parashah are the blessings of walking in a path that started with study but ended with action. Our loves and our commitments must be manifested outwardly. It is not enough to say, “I love you.” We need to show it, too. And, it is not enough to say, “I feel Jewish.” Those feelings need to be demonstrated in deeds.
I’m happy to be in my EARLY 70’s for I feel much more in touch with this reality than I did in my 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s. …perhaps, it was in my 60’s that some wisdom finally settled in. I don’t think it is only hindsight that helps me understand that we need to always strive for the kindness…with family, colleagues, and friends. I really think, at least for me, it’s life experiences that have been my best teachers. Those life experiences teach us how to “get into someone else’s shoes,” or we learn not to “sweat the small stuff” and recognize what is truly important in life. And, at the end of the day, it’s all about our treasured relationships and how to treat one another. How true – it’s not enough to simply say “I love you.” We need to show it.
In Martin Buber’s recounting of one of the Chasidic tales, he tells us that Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk taught, concerning the V’ahavta, “And these words that I command you this day shall be upon your heart.” The verse does not say “in your heart.” For there are times when the heart is shut. But the words lie upon the heart; and when the heart opens in holy hours, they sink deep down into it. I love that image. There is always hope for the words that lie upon the heart will, one day, at a time of gained wisdom, of renewed understanding, sink deep down into it and create behaviors that are for a blessing. The covenant with God is there for the taking. The intrinsic rewards can be experienced, and we can continue to make good choices, choices that make us menchen, choices that keep us kind with less regard to who is right. My hope for all is that we, and all people, come to embrace the sense that mitzvot are indeed a pathway to blessing, bringing blessing not only to the people around us, but as importantly to ourselves.