At times, our Torah may appear alienating. After all, what resonance in our modern lives has a G-d of furious vengeance threatening to destroy us? Religious observance continues to shift as we evolve both as a Jewish people, and as one larger human family. Issues of equality, personal fulfillment, and obligation challenge us individually and collectively. A dedicated faith emerges as almost counter-culture and the tone of our Torah can seem far removed from our everyday lives.
Such may be the case with this week’s parsha, Bechukotai. In this final portion of Vayikra (Leviticus), we learn that should the Israelites “faithfully observe” the commandments, they will be blessed with abundance and peace. However, they are warned, “…if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you…” (Leviticus 26:14 – 17).
What follows is an exhaustive list of terrors, each more ghastly than the one before, that will be visited upon those that fail in their commitment to the mitzvot. As 21st century Jewish women, we know such rhetoric has no literal application. Our lives move forward uninterrupted by our neglect of Shabbat, or our omission of proscribed prayers. We may enjoy challah from the grocery store, with little concern of its kashrut status. Today, affixing a mezuzah is optional.
We are inherently generative creatures. Our capacity for love and creation is nearly limitless. Artistic expression arises from within and is manifested in all manner of mediums – poetry, dance, digging in the earth, quilts under which to cuddle and lullabies for skies seared with lightning. We are architects of skyscrapers and builders of bridges. We mold meaning from our days and forge paths of enlightenment, for ourselves and others. We know blessings of peace and abundance when our hearts are open and our imaginations unleashed.
We also know what it is to feel our internal landscapes cursed. The detritus of depression suffocates our creative potential. Fear and anxiety shrink our capacity to love unconditionally. Anger disconnects us from community, and grief imprisons joy. We know what is to feel adrift, beset by our enemies, the shining face of providence no longer visible. Indeed, we have all felt misery wrecked upon and within us.
Emerging whole through such a dark sojourn can prove daunting. We cannot see our way clearly and we have no guideposts by which to measure progress. Perhaps what parsha Bechukotai can give us is a lamp to illuminate the shadows of our experience. Our mitzvot are always available for engagement. They are gateways to learning, personal growth, and connection with something greater than ourselves. The divine commandments of our Torah exist as opportunities, jewels to enrich our journey, and experiments in understanding. In those moments when we feel most alone, rudderless, without sight or heart-centered breath, perhaps we might begin to play with these elements of faith. What can the light of the Shabbos candles kindle within you? Awakening to confront another day, what solace may be found by thanking the divine for preservation of your soul? What may the binding of tefillin unwind within your own heart? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” We may view the mitzvot as steps along such a road. The curses and blessings of this week’s parsha, so vibrantly conveyed, may be understood as metaphors for passages on our individual voyages – the depth, breadth, and substance of which is entirely up to us to discover.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.