Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
Can a Torah commentary start with a Santa story? You decide.
Rabbi Paul Plotkin shares the following:
Jane and her older sister had been fighting a lot this year. Jane’s parents warned her that Santa Clause was watching, and Santa does not like it when children fight.
What does this have to do with the Torah? Everything! B’Chukkotai brings the book of Leviticus to an end. The opening (and shorter section) of the parasha consists of a series of blessings which will come if we follow God’s law. Then the tochecha (the admonition) takes over, detailing a much longer series of devastating curses which will result if do not follow the law. According to tradition, these curses are chanted rapidly and “under the breath” (in a soft, hard to hear tone) during a single long reading. We don’t like to listen to the curses, and in some synagogues, it is difficult to even find someone to read them. Yet, there is wisdom in their placement at the end of Leviticus, the book of Torah most concerned with holiness.
B’Chukkotai is not simply about divine reward and punishment, it is about human agency. Rabbi Plotkin shares the story of Jane because it exemplifies why we need this parasha: our actions have consequences, and we are responsible for the choices we make. Put differently, our choices and actions create consequences which we experience regardless of whether we take responsibility or not. So, if we want to have any sort of influence over what comes back our way, we need to take responsibility for choosing well. This is the beginning of Jewish mindfulness as a practice. The more attention we pay to how we make decisions and how we take action in our lives, the more agency we gain over what we do.
However, our responsibility extends far beyond ourselves. The point is not just to act for our reward and to avoid punishment; in the kind of just community Torah commands we also take responsibility for each other. If we see a wrong, we are required to right it. If we witness a crime, we cannot claim to be innocent bystanders. Either we act to stop or at least to report the crime, or we enable the crime to happen.
Whether we like it or not we are responsible – and that means we have the power to bring great pain or great blessing to the world.
As we conclude the book of Leviticus and contemplate how to bring more holiness into our lives, but one question remains: how shall we choose?
Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Behar is the name, and tzedakah is the game. Many of us have grown up equating tzedakah with giving charity, but the word literally means: “doing right.” We give charity when we are moved to help the less fortunate. We do tzedakah because it is how we are supposed to live our lives, regardless of how we may feel at any given time.
Behar begins with instructions for “doing right” for the earth by giving the land a rest, a full sabbath from work every seven years. This is where, I think, the word ‘sabbatical’ originates. Then, it continues on to describe the Jubilee year, as the cornerstone of a system where land (the source of power) can never be permanently sold but must be restored to the family of its original owner every 50 years. Why does this matter? The Jubilee creates a generational reset, so that every generation has the same opportunity for prosperity in the Promised Land.
From here, we move on to a series of additional laws of tzedakah regarding how to look after the poor. There are many words in Hebrew for a poor person: there is oni, and rash and evyon and nitzrach. However, none of those words appear even once in Behar. Instead, we read no fewer than seven different times about achicha. Achicha means “your brother,” and the nice biblical number of seven iterations adds weight to the term.
Torah makes no distinction between the value of ‘poor people’ and ‘rich people.’ Instead, it reminds us that we are all brothers, and we should treat each other accordingly: with respect, dignity and empathy. In giving charity, we might think that we are better off than the recipient, but ‘better off’ is only three letters away from ‘better.’ Framing our actions with this viewpoint can create a separation between the giver and the receiver, and even dehumanize the exchange. Instead, Torah teaches us what to do “should our brother come to ruin.” [Lev. 25:35] It reminds us that tragedy can strike any of us, and that we need each other. Indeed, Behar could very well be a biblical expression of the more modern phrase: “it takes a village.” Indeed, according to the rabbis, even the poorest of the poor are required to give tzedakah.
Behar calls us not only to a life of tzedakah, of doing right, but to create a community of tzedakah, so that we may all enjoy the fruits of the land.
Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
The Talmudic rabbis play a game of wits where one says, ‘I can sum up the entire Torah in just seven verses.’ Then another does it in six, and so on all the way down to one. Hillel wins by restating the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you do not to others – all the rest is commentary.” The Golden Rule, which is to love your neighbor like yourself, comes from this week’s parasha (Lev. 19:18 for those who want to know).
Far be it from me to disagree with Hillel. Yet, if it were up to me, I would pick a different verse – also, it turns out, from, this week’s parashah:
“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” [Lev. 19:2]
This verse is the beginning of a short, incredibly powerful section of Torah called the Holiness Code. And for me, this verse more than any other captures the essence of what Torah teaches. Let’s break it down.
The first part of the verse specifies that this commandment must be spoken to the entire collective of Israel, not just the elders. The Midrashic collection known as Sifra notes that this formulation only occurs for the most important tenets of Torah. So, the first part of the verse exists only to tell us to pay special attention to the second part of the verse: “You shall be holy …”
The English word “holy” is one of those words we toss around like “justice” where we assume that we all agree on what it means, but when push comes to shove, we find difficult to define. The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh. Unlike its English counterpart, kadosh has a very particular meaning: set apart for God. Shabbat is holy, it is set apart from the other days of the week. Torah is holy, it is set apart from other books.
“You shall be holy” commands us to be set apart as well, just as God is set apart. “You shall be holy” means that we are to follow a higher authority, live to a higher standard rather than merely go along with the status quo. “You shall be holy” teaches us that we are capable of more than we think, it inspires us to lift ourselves above the fray and take the long view. It reminds us that we are capable of emulating our God and that our lives have purpose.
To be a Jew, Torah teaches, is to be holy – to be set apart for God.
On the one hand, nothing could be more uplifting.
On the other hand … oy.
We have suffered so much for being different. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof: “Thank you God for the great honor of choosing me, but once in a while, can't you choose someone else?” Yet, with all of our suffering, we have also brought much light into the world – and we are not done. This is what it means to be a Jew. This is what Torah teaches us we can and must be. How do we do it? The Holiness Code gives us a start with a series of pithy commandments like the Golden Rule. However, even that is not enough. We also need to read the rest of Torah, and then Tanakh [the Jewish bible], and then look to the rabbinic tradition.
Hillel was right: all the rest is commentary. Let’s go and study.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras