I am going to be completely honest with you: I tend to struggle with parashot in Leviticus. There is a lot about laws and codes and complicated ritual practise.
A number of these themes do not resonate with the way I am living my Jewish life, or the ways in which many of my contemporaries live theirs.
So when I realized that my Torah portion would be the last book of Leviticus, it seemed to be a little nudge in the direction of having to engage with some of the tricky themes in this book. So, how can we take these difficult ideas and make them meaningful in our modern Jewish lives? We’ll get to that just now.
Certainly, the themes in this week’s portion, Bechukotai, can be somewhat jarring. It sets out a kind of holiness code – prescriptions for the way in which people should act. It states that if the Israelites follow God’s commandments, they will be rewarded with plentiful land, prosperity and peace. If, however, God is not obeyed and the commandments spurned, an array of pretty horrific punishments will be dealt.
This seems to imply that there is a direct correlation between our human actions and the natural order of the universe; if we do good, we will be rewarded. If we do bad, we will be punished. This implies that the moral order and the natural order of the universe are intrinsically connected.
And yet, if we draw on our own experiences and observations, we know that there are “good” people in the world who “do good things”, and yet they suffer. And there are not-so-good people who do pretty awful things, and they appear to prosper.
When trying to figure out this troubling theme in Bechukotai, a number of explanations I came across were this:
God has a grand scale of justice, a kind of karmic tally system, too intricate for human understanding. All we can do is simply accept it and move on. Live our lives without paying much attention to supposed injustice in the world around us.
I struggle to accept this. While a focus on one’s own, individual work can certainly be meaningful, it should not be to the detriment of others. Further, we cannot be so wrapped up in our own journeys that we ignore those of others. We should be able to look at the world around us, to recognize injustice, and to work together to fix it.
Perhaps this is part of the message of Bechukotai’s theme – being rewarded or punished collectively is not about every individual working single-mindedly on only one cause, with only one goal of reward. Rather, it is about the community, made up of individuals, working to help one another, instead of only themselves. It’s about being aware of suffering and injustice and doing something about it together.
This is closely linked to a concept in Judaism, captured by the phrase, “L’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai” – to repair the world under God’s sovereignty. The term “Tikkun Olam” is taken from this phrase, and has come to mean, in a number of Jewish circles, including Netzer, to become involved in social action in a way that will eventually bring about a repaired, redeemed world – a messianic era. The emphasis is placed on our responsibility to bring about such a world.
But the portion, Bechukotai, throws a spanner in the works, because it makes no mention of Tikkun Olam. Nowhere does it include the theme of ultimate redemption. This is curious, because in another portion, in Deuteronomy, threats of punishment and exile are followed by promises of redemption, of a messianic age.
In Bechukotai, in lieu of this promise, we are instead offered solace in the form of God’s remembrance of the covenants made with our ancestors. As the portion states, “I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham, and I will remember My land.” (Lev. 26:42)
David Frankel, writing for myjewishlearning.com, explains this lack of “redemption language”. He says that clear attention must be paid to the Hebrew text in order to understand. (Bear with me – we’re gonna have a short Hebrew 101).
The word “Yakov”, or “Jacob” – the root of my Hebrew name – is usually spelt without the Hebrew letter vav in the Torah. Yet in this portion, it includes the letter vav to make the o sound. There are only four other places in the Torah in which this spelling occurs.
According to Rashi, the medieval rabbinic commentator, these five instances of variant spelling mirror those of another word: Eliyahu, Elijah, the prophet who heralds the messianic age. His name is spelt throughout the Torah with a vav. Yet there are five instances in which Eliyahu is spelt without it.
Why are there 5 places in Torah where Yakov has a vav, and 5 places in Torah where Eliyahu is spelt without it?
Rashi explains these spelling anomalies by claiming that Yakov “took” a letter from Elijah’s name as “collateral”, so that Eliyahu would be sure to one day herald the coming of the messianic age to Yakov’s descendants – us.
So even with no direct mention of redemption in the portion, it can still be found by delving into linguistic magic of our sages.
And why the letter vav?
Rabbi Dovid Feinstein gives a literal meaning of the word “vav”, which is not only a letter, but is also found as a word in parashot describing the building of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary. “Vavim”, the plural of vav, are the connecting hooks which linked curtains to the poles that supported them. So, the letter vav represents connection – that which holds things together. In other words, the vav can represent the unity that is achieved when all elements are working together to achieve a common purpose.
J Similarly, through our work as individuals within a community, or multiple communities, we can strive for a common purpose of Tikkun Olam – to create a messianic age. We can all rally together, help one another out, engage in dialogue, engage in action, raise awareness, raise funds, raise consciousness regarding social issues, and strengthen one another in our work towards a world of justice and meaningful peace.
As is said when we complete the reading of one of the five books in the Torah, and which we said this morning, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened by one another.”