I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
Why is Jewish law known as halacha -- the walking?
Possibly, the term flows from the opening line of this week's Torah reading: If you walk in My laws, and keep watch over My commandments, and do them… (Leviticus 26:3)
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev taught that this verse describes stages in the performance of a mitzvah. Actually doing a mitzvah is only the third stage!
Since "walking in the law" is just the first stage, he says that it must refer to getting the idea of performing a specific mitzvah for the first time. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak imagines that inside of us, there is a lot "walking around" when we consider a mitzvah. There is a battle between inner voices. One calls on us to listen to God's command. Another says: This mitzvah is irrelevant. This mitzvah is inconvenient. As soon as God detects this movement, God is drawn into us, so to speak, and helps us refine our thoughts toward taking on that mitzvah.
Even before we commit to the mitzvah, the step of considering it earns us "the reward for walking." Rabbi Levi Yitzchak says that a person who is "walking" through the first thought about a mitzvah is just like the person who is already observant and "moving" into deeper meanings.
Which specific mitzvah has you moving? Is it a potential new dimension of Shabbat? Noticing a situation when you are prone to gossiping? Moving might be mulling it over, or trying it out. Halacha gives us not just a general way of life, but a specific practice to focus on. Just by focusing, we are walking.
Parashat B'chukotai comes at the end of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). After a book filled with specific laws, mostly about the sacrificial worship but also about living a holy life, this week's parasha exhorts the Israelites as a nation to keep God's covenant and commandments faithfully. "If you walk by my laws and keep my statues, and do them, I will give your rain at its appropriate time, and the trees of the field will give their fruit..." (26:3-4). If the Israelites reject God's laws and walk away from them, a series of catastrophes will be visited on them.
The ultimate consequence, according to the Torah, of abandoning the commandments is exile. God will no longer protect the people in Eretz Yisrael, and they will be forced to live elsewhere until they are ready to return to God.
The idea that the Jews' possession of the Land of Israel at any given time is conditional is woven throughout the Torah and the prophets. While Eretz Yisrael is always the homeland, the Torah says that the right to live there at the moment always depends on the way the people live and act when they are on the land. God gave the land not for its own sake, and not simply so that the Jews would have a place somewhere as all nations do. The land and the Jews come together so that the Jews can bring God's teachings to their full flowering.
As Jews in and out of Israel today look at the conflict with the Palestinians, this perspective from the Torah must remain in mind. This week, President Obama weighed in with his view on how the Land of Israel should be shared between Israel and the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, outlined their argument for the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state this September (a must read).
In biblical times, when faced with pressure from the outside, Israel's kings tried to view things only strategically, in terms of alliances and forces. The prophets, with the words of the Torah such as this week's, reminded them that it is the character of Jewish society that will determine the outcome. A callous insensitivity to the Palestinians' suffering, their sense of identity and statelessness, cannot be in line with the covenant.
No amount of military strength will prevail if there is not also a human response, a moral response. I don't expect Prime Minister Netanyahu to let down his vigilance about Israel's safety when the Middle East is in turmoil. As a Jewish leader, though, he needs at least to let on that he understands that the Palestinians are stateless and in exile.
The Torah well knew that biblical Israel was surrounded by enemies, and permeated by Canaanite tribes with a profoundly different religion and worldview. But Parashat B'chukotai does not teach: "If you reject my laws, I will send you into exile, unless your enemies are terrible and you had no choice." This year is a precarious time for Israel. Focusing only on how threatening the neighbors are will not, says the Torah, make Israel any safer.
At first reading, the two parashiyot that are combined this
week seem like a divine split personality.Behar ("At the mountain [of Sinai]") is the most utopian parasha in all of Torah after
Genesis 1, in which "God saw and, look, it was very good" -- all of
Creation!Behar imagines a land in
which every seven years, people lose the basic privilege of land
ownership.They are forbidden from
working the land to cultivate produce and sell what they grow.Instead, everyone eats from whatever
grows.And every fifty years,
people and families return to the property that belonged to them when the
Israelites first came into the land.All transactions are, to use the language of today's papers,
family became wealthy by accumulating land, when the jubilee year arrives
everything goes back where it started.
Imagine how highly God must think of us, to imagine that we could realize this vision.
B'chukotai ("by my laws"), in contrast, is mostly taken up with divine
reward and punishment.If the
Israelite community obeys the covenant in Eretz Yisrael, God will prosper
them.If they don't, and continue
to slide away, God will make the land infertile, bring hunger, and eventually
banish the people from the land.
This is a more graphic version of the second paragraph of
the Shma, the so-called "standard theology" of the Bible.Utopian it isn't!It is almost as if in these sections, God views the Israelites as always children, presumed to respond primarily to incentives and punishments.
For a long time I found it very difficult to pray my way
through the second paragraph of the Shma.Or to find any divine inspiration in the theology of reward and
punishment.Behar, in contrast,
spoke to me and prodded my dreamiest dreams.
About fifteen years ago, I was given an article by Rabbi Arthur
Waskow that changed my outlook about these passages in the Torah.And I began to understand that Behar
and B'chukotai are not two poles, but two sides of the same coin.
Rabbi Waskow reads sections like B'chukotai with an ecological lens.When our way of life becomes unmoored
from Torah, we cause the land we live on to become unforgiving, inhospitable to
our life.When we don't live by the
laws that restrain the power that one person might exert over another, we spin
ever faster in a materialistic frenzy. When we ignore the
Sabbath and draw out of the earth unrelentingly each week and each year, we
abuse the Life that is God's presence in the soil, the waters, and the
sky. We cause God to leave our land, our earth. And as a result, we well know from environmental scientists, human beings are having to leave lands that are becoming progressively less habitable.
So in the end, Behar and B'chukotai flow from the same divine vision. The laws of the covenant are, among other things, limits on our use of the earth. Respecting those limits from day to day creates the habits that might one day lead us to the mountaintop, where we might contemplate Shabbat on the wider scale. The scale of pausing our economic machine, or sharing its rewards more equitably, or making sure each family has a chance each generation to start fresh if they need to.
The utopia of Behar is far beyond us. There are first steps and next steps. This Shabbat and next week we call attention at Temple Beth Abraham to the New England Carbon Challenge. It is a simple and fast on-line tool that enables a household to model different changes in the way we use energy. You sit down with your bills, and explore different options. The website tells you how much that choice will reduce your bills and your carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On Monday at 8:00, we are welcoming Arden Cala, outreach director for the mayor of Nashua's citywide Green Team to talk about it.
It takes maybe 15 minutes, and the average participant comes up with ideas that could save more than $700 each year. Most of the ideas are far short of installing solar panels on your roof or wind generators in the yard. Try it! I hope for 50 households to log in this month and see what's possible. You can do it at home, or come in during religious school next week on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday and someone with a laptop can walk you through it.
These changes are a win all the way around -- for the bank account, the atmosphere, and the swaths of our planet that we are ruining in our quest for more fuel. And they are very much in the spirit of the teachings at the end of Leviticus and the second paragraph of the Shma. Try some, that we may continue to live well on the good land that God has given us.