BECHUKOTAI – פרשת בחקתי

by Judi Steinman, in honor of my 53rd birthday
May 24, 2008

Bechukotai is the conclusion of the book of Leviticus and is one of several portions dedicated to the Laws of Holiness.  Leviticus provides us, the Jewish people, with the laws, practices and guidance for how we, the common folk, can connect with Torah. Leviticus contains some practices that went by the wayside after the destruction of the temple, such as animal sacrifice, which even our Orthodox cousins do not practice today. On the other hand, it is in the Leviticus chapter Emor that we receive the Jewish calendar of holidays to which many modern Jews of all backgrounds connect on some level, and the laws of kashrut, to which some of us subscribe. So, the book of Leviticus contains something for everyone, including our ancestors and our future generations.

Bechukotai contains the bulk of the mitzvot that HaShem expects Jews to perform. Many interpreters of this chapter of Jewish history prefer to focus on the first eleven lines, which outline the many bountiful blessings to which Jews are entitled if they perform the mitzvot. The next section of the portion, lines 16-39, is like the plague for these same scholars, since it contains the unrelenting and unambiguous punishments awaiting those of us who chose to defy G-d’s commandments. Robin Weber, a Hillel educator with the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning crystallized the thoughts of many modern Jews in stating: “As a committed Reform Jew, I felt my life embodied Jewish values, but I wasn’t prepared to examine the ways in which my deviation from the letter of specific mitzvot might merit curses and misery.”

I like what the more unseemly part of the Parashat suggests, however. If our lack of performing mitzvoth is a reflection of our disconnection to Judaism, then it makes sense that HaShem “will scatter [us] among the nations” (Leviticus 26:33) or that if we do not repent, “the sound of a driven leaf shall put [us] to flight” (Leviticus 26:36). What this really says, to me, is that we will feel scattered if we disconnect ourselves from Judaism, that we will feel like a leaf blown by the wind if we do not anchor ourselves to Jewish life. For me, this is so, so true.

I interviewed for a job this week and was asked to give them an example of an idea that I had that changed the way people did things. I thought for a moment and then told them about our Torah and how we, as a community, came together to repair our scroll. I supplemented this with other professional accomplishments but I saw in each person’s eyes that they understood how special it was for our community to come together, bound by our Torah. Every time I think back to that experience, I realize how it anchored me to Judaism, how it blessed me with a connection to this Jewish community, the Jewish community of our other islands and to the Jewish community of the universe. For me, this is what HaShem was talking about. If we perform the mitzvot, we will feel grounded – if we choose not to perform the mitzvot, we will take flight with the wind like a leaf.

HaShem knows us well. G-d asserts that, “even then, when [you] are in the land of [your] enemies, I will not reject [you] or spurn [you] so as to destroy [you], annulling My covenant with [you]: for I the Lord am your G-d” (Leviticus 26:44). HaShem knows that it is a struggle for us to remember to do mitzvot and wants us to know that HaShem will patiently wait until our egos can connect with our souls and we can return to our mission on this planet – to be in unity with G-d’s spirit. G-d lays it out for us – we will feel blessed if we perform blessings and we will feel cursed if we fail to perform blessings. G-d will wait for us to mature to the point that we stop fighting the responsibility of performing mitzvot and we do them lovingly and willingly. When this happens in our lives, then we will realize that G-d has not rejected us, spurned us or destroyed us – we will feel anchored and whole.

WorldORT’s commentator explains that “these punishments, whose purpose is to bring Yisrael to repent, will be in seven stages, each more severe than the last.” Is it punishment or is it the withdrawal from our connection with G-d? Does it really matter? The point is that as time passes, we will get further and further away from our spiritual paths if we continue to turn away from our responsibilities. The responsibilities are well articulated in Bechukotai, giving us a map to the behaviors that will make us feel good.

Included in Emor, a few chapters before Bechukotai, is the commandment to count the omer, the sheaf of grain that eludes us in the modern world but once upon a time was a main measure of commerce. We are commanded to count from the twilight after Pesach seven times seven days and then on the fiftieth day, we were to bring a new offering to the temple. Wedged in the middle of this counting, we find Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the count. To some, this is a day of reprieve, during which Jews may get married, shave, and perform other functions that are banned during the rest of the omer counting. To others, Lag B’Omer is perceived as the birth date of Jewish mysticism. Tied to it are the Chassidic tales regarding Reb Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, Reb Eliezer, who lived together in a cave in exile for twelve years, hiding from the Romans. In this cavernous existence, they studied Torah buried to their ears in sand. They would don clothes only to daven, enabling their clothes to last for the duration of their exile. Miracles occurred, enabling them to receive nourishment from a carob tree that appeared out of nowhere and fresh water sent by HaShem.

Rashbi and his son eventually emerged from the cave with an bizarre ability to burn anyone who was sac-religious just by looking at them. The rabbis had to go back to the cave for another year, after which Reb Eliezer develops the astounding ability to heal anything that his father incinerates with his eyes. I will leave it to a scholar of the Zohar to teach you the whole story, but for now, suffice it to say that Rashbi and his son are forever linked to Lag B’Omer. Today, “the real celebration in Israel of Lag B’Omer, is in the northern Galilee town of Meron. A small town by all measures, on Lag B’Omer, it becomes filled with celebration. An estimated 250,000 to 300.000 people congregate on this normally sleepy mountainside during the 24 hours of Lag B’Omer.

Rashbi died on this day almost 2300 years ago in Meron. From Rashbi’s spiritual teachings, his student Rabbi Abba wrote the Zohar, the Book of Splendor. “On his last day, he had to give over all of the secrets which he possessed, lest they be lost and unknown to the future generations. The sun was sinking, Rabbi Abba was writing, but there was too much to write down. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba kept writing, the rest of the students saw the sun standing still, refusing to set. Suddenly a fire began burning all around the house. No one could enter, no one could leave. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba continued writing. Finally, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai finished speaking, a tremendous glow, a brilliant light illuminated the house as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai returned his soul, pure and righteous, to his maker.”

As we have heard, Jews today celebrate Lag B’Omer by kindling bonfires. Now we know why. May the spirit of Rashbi’s teachings burn brightly as we continue to observe the commandment of counting the omer.

One omer, two omers, three omers, four, five omers, six omers, seven omers more.

You get the idea, Chag Sameach and may all your omers count!

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