Shabbat BeHukotai: What Kind of G-d Does This?

In this final week of reading from the Book VaYikra (Leviticus), we are presented with a most unpleasant text, known as the Tokhekhah, “Rebuke”. The parashah has begun with a beautiful picture of the lovely life that we will enjoy if we follow G-d’s mitzvot:

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My Commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit….and you shall dwell securely in your land.” (Lev. 26.3)

That’s in the 1st third of the Torah reading. This being the second year of our Triennial Reading Cycle, we start with the consequences not of obedience but of rebellion. The terms are so very harsh that there is a natural recoil from the reading, and a minhag (traditional habit) has developed around it: no one wants the aliyot associated with it, since the content of the aliyah with which one is honored is rather superstitiously thought to have an impact on oneself, and the reader usually tries to chant or read through the verses involved as quickly as possible, in an undertone, for that same reason.

This approach is reminiscent of the way we often treat horrible news; by distancing ourselves, by looking away. And part of the way in which we distance ourselves is to create a sense of how unlikely it is that such a thing could be.

That is how we come to the typical modern Jewish response to these verses: “this is outrageous! what kind of G-d would threaten such horrible consequences for disobeying G-d’s laws, and who would be stupid enough to believe in such a horrible G-d?”

But when we substitute another word for this unacceptable religious term, behold: morality refracts quite obviously through the lens of scientific knowledge. Consider just one such example of a way of understanding the blessings and curses of Behukotai:

The laws of the Torah command respect for the earth and its natural processes if we are to expect reliably dependable sowing time and harvests. When we do not respect the earth and its needs, we are told that “the skies will be like iron…your strength shall be spent to  no purpose. The land will not yield its produce, nor the trees of the field their fruit.” (Lev. 26.19-20)

It is becoming clearer that among the curses brought about by climate change is a new scarcity of water in certain places, which has been suggested as the main reason for the long years of bitter and murderous civil unrest in Somalia (http://www.somwe.com/scarcity.html).

Other examples of short-sighted and immoral human activity which has caused terrible disasters may include the recent landslide in Oso Washington, which killed at least 41 people. A bill which would have restricted further development in areas suspected to be prone to landslides was recently killed in the Snohomish County legislature in favor of a less-comprehensive plan. Developers hailed the move. After all, what are the chances that such a catastrophic landslide could happen again? (http://www.governing.com/news/headlines/what-could-go-wrong.html)

We recoil from the thought that our actions may actually turn our skies to iron and our fertile fields to barren desert. But when we look clearly and soberly at this week’s parashah, and then look around us, do we not see that our choices bring us blessing or curse? And that the word G-d, here, is simply and profoundly a powerful human way to refer to that which cannot be bribed out of consequences, nor avoidance of cause and effect, nor distracted away from looking at what we have wrought, just because it is too painful to contemplate.

The laws of G-d are one way of understanding what can also be expressed as the moral law of the universe. In either case, the kind of G-d that does this is the kind of G-d of which we are an inescapable part. The power we wield as G-d’s hands in the world will destroy us in myriads of curses that kidnap children, drown teenagers, and destroy us all by toxic degrees – or that same power will lift us up into an exaltation of justice and kindness that will heal much and inspire more.

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