How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

June 2, 2008

D’var Torah: B’Chukotay

Filed under: religion,San Diego Jewish Community,Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 16:04

Yeah, I know I’m posting it a week late, but I delivered it on time (Shabbat, 24 May 2008, 19 Iyar 5768) at Tifereth Israel. Among other things, B’Chukotay is notable for the inclusion of the tochecha, the section of punishments I refer to below, which, according to tradition, is to be read quickly and quietly, in contrast to the rest of the Torah reading this or any other week.
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In this week’s parasha, BeChukotay, we reach the end of the Book of Leviticus. It is here that Moses passes along to the people of Israel God’s admonishments to observe the mitzvot and prosper, along with God’s warnings that if the people fail to observe the commandments, punishment will ensue.

The rewards include a bountiful land & plentiful crops, general prosperity, peace with Israel’s neighbors, and, in the case of those not interested in making peace, enemies withdrawing in defeat from the mighty Israelites.

Similarly, the punishment for failure to observe the mitzvot is delineated in graphic detail: drought & famine throughout the land, hunger to the point of parents having to eat their own children, war and consequent defeat, and finally exile – the ultimate punishment for a people whose very existence and relationship with God is tied to a specific parcel of physical space.

Speaking as we are in the early 21st century, in the diaspora, looking from afar as Israel marks its 60th anniversary while under relentless missile attack and constant attempts at “smaller, more minor” attacks, it may seem like things aren’t going so well (I’ll remind you that a suicide truck bomber failed to kill anyone but himself with four tons of explosives at the Erez crossing from Gaza Thursday, and another suicide bomber was shot and killed as he tried to detonate his explosives at a checkpoint outside Shchem in the West Bank on Monday). Sure, not all Jews follow all the mitzvot, but is that really what the text – what God – wants us to achieve?

It’s significant to me that the language used in this section of the parasha, the blessings and curses, is, in contrast to the language used later when talking about the endowments and sacrifices, communal language. That is, it always talks about “the people” doing or not doing this or that, and being rewarded or punished, en masse.

Reading this, I was immediately reminded of the Talmudic saying, kol Israel arevim zeh la-zeh – all Jews are responsible one for another.

Little did I know that, in coining this phrase, the Talmudic rabbis were commenting on this very parasha! Specifically, on chapter 26, verse 37 (page 751),

–>This is where I read the Hebrew. I gotta figure out how to display Hebrew properly in my posts… images, perhaps?<-- “With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword…” No lesser a commentator than Rashi first explains the verse literally, envisioning people bumping into and falling over each other in their frightened retreat. But he then cites the Talmud's midrashic comment, found in Tractate Sanhedrin:

“”…they shall stumble over one another…” meaning one will stumble over the sins of another for all Israel is responsible one for the other.”

Thus, the “stumbling” the Torah warns about is not physical, but spiritual; that the sinning of one – an individual’s failure to follow the mitzvot – will cause others to stumble, eventually bringing the promised retribution from God.

The Hebrew root word that is here translated as “stumble” is CaSHaL, which also means “to fail.” The double meaning is itself significant, for when one stumbles over the sins, or failures, of another, that means the stumbler failed as well.

This spiritual stumbling itself could be interpreted in a couple of ways:

First, one could stumble over the sins of another in the sense that one observes another sinning and is tempted to, um, “join in the fun.”

Alternately, the stumbling could refer to the result – the punishment being meted out on all the people as a result of the sins of some.

This means, friends, that we can’t just look the other way when we see sinning, or the failure in others to observe the commandments. Not only would this be an active shirking of our stated responsibility for one another, but if I “look the other way,” I cannot easily continue walking along the straight path I was headed down in the first place – and I would thus be that much closer to stumbling myself.

Either way, the lesson that we are all responsible for one another should not be lost. There may be individuals in the community who, for a variety of reasons, are incapable of observing some mitzvot without assistance. Some may need a little more… “encouragement” than others. We all need to do our part to live lives that warrant reward, and persuade others to do the same.

Peace on earth, plenty of food, adequate social support for those who can’t support themselves, etc. – all this is possible, and it will come, as the text suggests, as an act of or a gift from God. But not in the way many people expect such gifts.

Gifts from God are rarely obvious miracles of Biblical proportions. We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and we all have within us the capacity to carry out God’s work. We must engage in this work if we are to enjoy God’s blessings.

Shabbat shalom.

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