1. So are we on the good side of God’s ledger or on the bad side? Based on the lists of blessings and curses that open parshat Bechukotai, I would have to say that we are on… both! On the one hand, we seem to be as GOOD as we have ever been. Why? Look at the very FIRST blessing, before the tochecha. “And I shall give your rains at the correct time, and the land will yield its harvest and the tree of the field will yield its fruit.” Ladies and gentlemen – the Kineret is this much away from overflowing! Can anyone remember the last time that happened? Based on this, we must be doing something very right!!!!
But then, after finishing the first 11 sentences of blessings and good cheer, we enter the world of the tochecha, the 29 verses of warnings about the curses that will rain down upon us without mercy if we abandon the path. And what is the first curse? “And I will bring behala upon you. The dictionary says behala is misery, terror, panic or shock. Rabbi Noah Arnow explains that behala anxiety squared, a sense of being scared, suddenly, without knowing what to do. This terror and confusion makes it hard to understand, to listen, to heed. Our fight-or-flight response kicks in. We may freeze or run or lash out, but when we’re scared, we’re bad listeners. We can rarely even understand what’s going on around us and inside us. What have we been experiencing these past six weeks?
And so on which side of the ledger are we? You decide.
. In general, I like the last two parshot of the book of Vayikra. In Behar we learn who the exclusive owner is of everything we think of as ours (God). And in Bechukotai we learn the rental conditions for retaining these possessions. The rules of tenancy are laid out. And they’re not what some pseudo religious leaders would have us believe – that Sin X is why you had a car accident, that Sin Y is why you lost your money and Sin Z is the source of all of your family’s bad luck. (That, incidentally, is the ultimate chutzpa – pretending that one is privy to God’s reasoning.) The real reckoning is collective, not individual, and it is plain and simple. Do it or get kicked out. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not next year. But it will come. The rules – especially caring for others, caring for the land and avoiding corruption – give us legitimacy as a people in our country. We ignore them at our own risk. The prophets transmit the same message.
This sounds remarkably like fundamentalism-light. But it isn’t. It’s simple common sense. Two times in our history we lost our Temple and our country. Why? The prophets tell us it’s because we didn’t adhere to the laws of the Torah. Those between man and man for the most part. Even when it was a matter of sacrifices not being sincere, the descriptions of our “sins” included bad treatment of our fellow countrymen, disregard for the weaker elements of society and corruption at the highest political and religious levels.
But it’s not just us. In ancient times, the greatest empires fell when people forgot what their country stood for, when moral values turned to mush and those in charge, followed by the masses, were more interested in their own benefits than the country’s. Success leads to a breakdown in internal unity. When this happens, a young, hungry nation can overcome an old flaccid empire. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome.
3. Appended to the tochecha in Bechukotai is another chapter dealing with the cash value of lives. This is to determine the cost of redeeming consecrations and pledges a person makes to the Tabernacle or the Temple. One of the most searing moral problems of the corona crisis was who should be given ventilators if not enough were available for all the patients. In other words, whose lives have more value. What was shocking, especially to those in a specific age group, was how easily they (we) – the elderly – were shunted to the bottom of the totem pole. The logic was: They’ve lived their lives, if they don’t die now they’ll die soon enough, young men and women have families to support, etc. Logical but shocking, and depressing.
In the parsha, the values are also determined by economic logic. As Rabbi Loren Sykes points out, a young child is not worth anything in terms of earning ability. A man aged 20-60 is worth the most, a woman 20-60 is worth 40% less, again in terms of earning power. But after age 60 the value of men goes down by almost 40% while that of women goes down much less. An adage in the Talmud says that an old man in the house is a nuisance, an old woman is the house is a good omen. No comment.
So we see that there really isn’t anything new under the sun, not in terms of behavior patterns or in terms of gender/age (in)equality. As the French writer Jean-Baptiste Karr said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.