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Bechukotai 5783

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Rabbi Geier


BS"D || Rabbi Geier

Bechukotai 5783

If any of us doubted how the world works in relation to the Lord, Bechukotay makes it simple for us. If we fulfill God's precepts and commandments, things will go well. However, if we despise them, everything will become a bit more complicated.

For the latter case, God provides a list of curses or warnings (tojajot) that are so severe and terrifying that the Torah reading advises us to read them quietly and quickly, almost unnoticed. We should avoid attracting the possibility of those negative consequences into our lives.

If someone sees this as a sort of reward-punishment system, they wouldn't be entirely wrong at first glance. If you behave well, then God will be with you. If you behave poorly, He won't. Although we might want to believe that it works this way, we know that most of the time, bad people also thrive while good people suffer.

How can this be? Does the Torah lie to us?

We can't say that the Torah lies to us. Perhaps we are taking everything too literally and linearly. Maybe we need to delve deeper into the text, searching for hints that things are not so straightforward and conclusive.

One of the answers may lie within the text itself. In verse 6 of Leviticus chapter 26, God says that He will establish peace in the land, and its inhabitants will be able to lie down to sleep without fear or trembling. "Venatati shalom baaretz ushchavtem veein macharid." This sounds quite unbelievable, especially in recent weeks when Israel has been threatened with missiles and carried out military actions against high-value Hamas targets in Gaza, amidst accusations and threats.

So, what does it mean to lie down without trembling?

It's not about rewards or punishments imposed by a Big Brother who watches everything. God exists, judges us, guides us, and protects us. However, for a long time, the world and the management of our lives have been in our hands. We are accountable, that is true. But the harshest judge of a person, when judged honestly, is oneself. We are the ones who know our own miseries and shortcomings. We know what we could have done better but couldn't or didn't want to. We know what needs improvement. When we tremble and cannot sleep, it is generally because we know there is something where we did not give EVERYTHING we should have to make it turn out well.

On the contrary, when we fulfill our duty as Jews, as human beings, as members of a society, a community, a belonging group, and we do so consciously and wholeheartedly, then "ushchavtem veein macharid." We lie down and do not tremble. Our rest is restorative, and our life is more tranquil. Part of this duty also concerns the physical world that surrounds us, which our parashah also addresses.

I remember watching a video a few years ago on my phone that caught my attention because it repeated over and over again, "everyone dies." It showed images of the world and everyday life, repeatedly stating, "everyone dies” once and again.

The Torah portion of this week discusses two other concepts, Shnat Smita, the sabbatical year for the land, and Shnat Yovel, the year of Jubilee, referring, of course, to the Jewish Jubilee, a concept in which the land must rest for one year after six years of cultivation, and also in the 50th year. We cannot use it and extract everything that benefits us and that we believe we need, deplete it, and return it destroyed. That 50th year was a year of debt forgiveness and the return of the land to its original owners. Everything returned to zero. It was like shuffling the cards and starting anew.

This brought me back to the concept of "everyone dies." We are not truly owners of anything. We don't own our time, our life, and certainly not our supposed possessions. We don't own anything that the Lord lends us for the limited time of our lives. No matter how rich or powerful we may think we are, that power and wealth will come to an end one day.

We have a borrowed body that we must return in the best possible condition. We live in a borrowed world that we should return in a better state than we received it, or at least in the same condition. It's like when you borrow a car, you return it washed and with a full tank of gas.

In some way, we must understand that for the past 3,000 years, the Torah asks and demands that we conduct ourselves during the time we have in this life. We must let go of our possessive arrogance and understand that coexistence with our fellow human beings, our environment, our natural surroundings is necessary. Coexistence among our closest connections is just as necessary as among the most distant ones. Why? Because we are truly just passing through. 

In this transitory state, we have the enormous commitment, which we have talked about extensively, of Tikun Olam, improving the world and not making it worse. We have the commitment to improve our surroundings, our lives, and the lives of those around us, with a strong commitment to taking care of those who are less fortunate.

Shnat Smita and Shnat Yovel, the Sabbatic year and ten year of Jubilee. We must keep them in mind every day of our lives because they indicate our true place in existence.

May this Shabbat allow us to commit ourselves not out of fear of curses or punishments we may deserve, but simply because we find that point where we contribute to a better world, to Tikun Olam, so that we can rest without trembling, without fear. Ushjavtem ve ein majarid.

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