Parshat Bechukotai 2018
In 1968, a hit musical in Israel called I Like Mike featured a song called: What does a man really need in order to live? And the answer: A loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, a bed to sleep in, a car to give your feet a rest, a roof to keep the rain out, a few shekels to spend and love all the time.
Opening today’s parsha, before the list of tragedies that will beset us if we don’t follow God’s commands, is a picture of the good life. It contains three elements: “…you will eat your food (bread) to the point of satisfaction, and [you will] live securely in the land. I will grant peace in the land so that you will sleep without fear” (Leviticus 26:5-6). Bread, security, and sleeping without fear. Add health and it’s all there.
Looking at the three elements, it might seem that peace and security and sleeping without fear are two sides of the same coin, but it’s not so. For one thing, peace usually refers to peace in our land, in Israel. And it’s true that peace would or should allow us to sleep more soundly. But look at the situation today. We don’t have war, but we don’t have peace. And even if we did, could we be sure? Knowing that a terrorist has not set off a bomb recently does not mean it is impossible. Perhaps it is unlikely because of such and such security measures. So there goes your sleep, if you are so inclined.
Those who lived in other countries that were not always friendly to the Jews (that’s most of them) know that peace and quiet is no guarantee of continued peace and quiet. Nor is it conducive to sleeping well. Going to bed after a day of good relations with neighbors does not necessarily mean no pogrom tomorrow. That’s not paranoia. It’s reality – just look at our history.
So we can agree that peace and security is one thing and the peace of mind needed to sleep well is another.
Towards the end of the longer tochecha, warning, in the book of Devarim, just before concluding the litany of diseases and plagues and punishments, we find a simple sentence that I find chilling: “In the morning you will say who will bring evening, and in the evening you will say who will bring morning, from the fear your heart feels and the sights your eyes see.” This is the description of what keeps a person from sleeping well at night.
Going back to the first of the three elements in the good life depicted in our parsha we find: “you shall eat food (bread) to satisfaction” – or better, to satiety. Rabbi Ari Kahn relates that a colleague used to wish him “la’sova” – to satiety – instead of bon apetit or beteavon when they ate together. He told Kahn he had learned this from Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who learned it from our parsha.
What does it mean to eat to satisfaction or satiety? Objectively, a country can lack food so that a person can’t get enough to be satisfied or full. Subjectively, and this applies to most western countries, food is readily available, and we eat, and eat, and eat but often are not satisfied.
Bernard Malamud created a character named Henderson who always felt that he wanted “MORE!” And that seems to afflict many people today too. We want more of… we may not even know what. People will use food to satisfy other psychological cravings, people try to fill their stomachs because they feel their lives are empty, people eat just so they won’t have to think. And today they can do it because so much food is available.
So this simple statement of eating to physiological satiety can reflect satisfying many different types of cravings. It intimates a coming to terms with who we are and what we are doing. It indicates that we don’t have to overload ourselves now with food or other substitutes because we are confident that we have enough now of what we need or want, and will have enough tomorrow as well. It says we feel balanced and able to evaluate what we need at any given point.
These are not values that we should take lightly. To attain such a positive and yet realistic assessment of our lives is something we would all be happy to share.
According to the parsha, the key to attaining these blessings is adherence to the mitzvoth which precede this parsha, and especially in last week’s parsha. There we read about giving the people and the land a rest, giving a hand to those who need it, and in general avoiding the types of behavior that usually fill today’s newspapers and news broadcasts.
This in essence brings the book of Vayikra to its conclusion. It dealt with sacrifices, priestly offices, purity and impurity (at its ritual and spiritual levels), separating ourselves from others through the food we eat and the way we treat the people around us and the land we live in.
This is a pretty tall order. What it requires is compassion for the people and the world – nature – around us. The commandments are punctuated regularly by the statement “I am your God,” making the socioeconomic and ecological commandments as binding and as important as the ritualistic ones.
So what does a person need in order to live? Bread and wine, sure. A roof over our head. Yes. A few shekels to make sure we can get through the day or week. Sounds good. And love all the time – for others and ourselves and our world. I guess the song got it right. Let’s hope we can too.