Parashat Behukkotai

May 18, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, News, Vayikra

By Rabbi Halina Rubinstein

In this week’s portion, the last in the Book of Leviticus, Moses relates to the people of Israel the blessings that God will bestow if they obey God’s commandments and the curses in store for them if they don’t. Behukotai raises serious questions about divine justice. For sure, following mitzvot framed in the ethical precepts of Judaism leads to a better world, regardless of our reward; indifference and neglect cause many of the scourges described in our parashah. But are they punishments? And, are the blessings in life rewards?

I understand this parashah as an assertion that everything in nature is a consequence or effect of God’s will; that the real drama of life is not between man and nature but a moral drama between man and God. This reminds me of something I experienced in a recent visit to Mexico City-my home town. My niece related a story that made my blood curl. A friend of hers lost a young child. Some rabbis in her community publicly attributed the tragedy that besieged the family to their lack of observance of Shabbat. Can we justify a theology that blames the loss of an innocent child as punishment for not keeping mitzvot? This question was already raised after the holocaust when one and a half million Jewish children were murdered; and we should raise it again and again every time an innocent child dies of hunger or abuse or a victim of terror.

No philosophic tradition can claim to be the custodian of what every Jew believes but in this stage and age we are not going to hear many thinkers, theologians, academics or philosophers validating this kind of doctrine. The history of Jewish Thought contains many challenges to the idea that natural disasters or personal tragedies are divine punishment or that we can enjoy life blessings if we are completely dutiful to God’s commandments.

The very first challenge to the idea of this kind of divine justice as expressed in our portion comes from within the Bible, from the Book of Job. This book turns the theology of this week’s portion on its head. In the Book of Job divine existence does not imply benevolence, and order and justice are no longer in evidence. On the contrary, God seems to be a wrathful, irascible attacker of humanity. Job is a completely righteous man who suffers terrible tragedies. Job does not deserve all he gets and his goodness cannot benefit him. Interestingly, there is also a subtle but significant textual allusion that links Behukotai to the Book of Job. In Leviticus 26:36 as part of the ‘curses’ it is written:

As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight… (JPS translation)

Aleh nidaf… a driven leaf. This imagery is used by Job (13:25), when questioning divine justice: how is it that irrespective of his piousness he is punished relentlessly? And in his helplessness he asks God: “Will You harass a driven leaf?”

In the end of the book Job undergoes a transformation, from open rebelliousness to profound acceptance. Job ultimately understands that he cannot fathom God’s motives that his knowledge will never suffice; he is finally reconciled with his fate.

I understand the curses in our portion not as a result of divine punishment, nor the blessings as rewards for our obedience. In order to understand what the curses in our portion are we also need to undergo an internal Job-like transformation. The curse is inside us, it is an existential state. The imagery of the leaf driven aimlessly by the wind is apt. Life’s anxieties or fears are exacerbated by lack of direction; not knowing where and how to go; not finding an anchor in life; losing track, becoming paralyzed or invadedby inaction or worse, by indifference. Every living soul has the potential of contributing to the wellness of society in important ways. Believing in this potential is the first step; finding a source of strength must follow. The source is found in our ethical tradition, our faith in prayer and action as well as in our commitment to learning, to mitzvot and to Israel; these are the anchor that will prevent us from floating aimlessly in the wind.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Halina Rubinstein is a founding member of Rosh Pinah a member-led Havurah in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, where she teaches, is involved in social action projects, lends her rabbinic services when needed, and sporadically serves as rabbinic advisor to their Board.