Shabbat BeHukotai: How to Choose Blessing Over Curse

Our parashat hashavua, our Torah reading for the week, is BeHukotai, which can be translated as “in all these laws.” The parashah itself is famous for a horrifying list of curses that we are told will befall us if we turn away from the good path of life. Longstanding Jewish tradition bids us chant this section of Torah quickly, in an undertone, as if to speak the terrible words aloud would make them more real.


This may be true of something which is only possible, but not evident; we, on the other hand, live in a time when our Jewish tradition declares that evil is upon us, and we must speak out and name the curses of our time, and demand attention, action, response.


The curses listed in this parashah of the Torah ring terribly true to us in these times: personal suffering, social breakdown, climate catastrophe. Perhaps most awful is the warning that our own efforts to stay personally safe, and shield those we love, will be fruitless. The communal nature of our existence is inescapable: we will all go together when we go, as Tom Lehrer put it.


To look at the text and be distracted by the grammar: “If you do not follow my laws I your G*d will punish you” is to let surface distraction deter you from the most important message our tradition can impart: our acts matter.


To follow the laws of B’Hukotai means:

  • to declare that at all times and in all places, there is something more important than accumulation of power, money, or even attention, and that is the ethic behind the action.
  • to assert that the spirit of love your neighbor as yourself must be asserted over the letter of unjust laws or norms.
  • to recognize and act upon the message of Shabbat: everything and everyone must rest from productivity.


It is a choice: blessing or curse. Climate change can be addressed if there is sufficient political will. Social breakdown can be healed if there is sufficient community involvement. And the personal suffering of inequitable political, financial and social systems cannot be avoided.


The ancient text is not comforting. It calls us to recognize a frightening reality. We might choose if we could not to live in such historic times. But your religious community is not here to help you turn away from terror when it hits home. It is here to help each of us find solidarity, support and company so that we can hold hands and insist on looking for and upholding the blessings even now, especially now.

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