Parashat Behukkotai 5779

A D’var Torah for Parashat Behukkotai
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

Reading this week’s Torah portion, I found myself as influenced by what is not in it as what is. What is not in it are the opening words “And God spoke to Moses, saying …” Those words, ubiquitous throughout the middle books of the Torah (they do appear half-way through this week’s parashah), do more than testify to the provenance of the revelation that follows them. They also create a distance between ourselves and those words by letting us know that we are hearing them, not directly, but as transmitted through an intermediary.

The “And God spoke to Moses” to which the opening words of this week’s parashah do not attach, appear all the way at the beginning of last week’s parashah. Even when these two parashiyot are read together, 56 verses separate us from the last mention of Moses’s mediating role. As a result, for me at least, the catalogue of blessings and curses with which Behukkotai begins have a special immediacy and drama. So when God says “I will grant,” or “I will look with favor,” or “I will wreak,” or “I will go on smiting,” I feel that I am being spoken to directly. God is watching my actions and responding to them according to my desserts.

I did not feel this way before sitting down to write this D’var Torah. If you had asked me before now how I understand these blessings and curses, I would have responded that I am a firm believer in cycles – both virtuous and vicious. The inherent interconnectedness of things seems inevitably to cause our actions in one sphere to spill over into the adjacent sphere – either for good or ill. Thus our small acts of thoughtfulness or negligence magnify the ease or hardship in all that follows. And thus the blessings and curses are an inherent part of the nature – both human and physical – of the world that God created. God, I would have said, does not act in our lives directly, but rather through the natural functionings of the interconnected world He created.

But the immediacy and the urgency I now feel when reading this section of Torah forces me to question this assumption. It does not say “the world I created will wreak,” it says “I will wreak.” And this realization raises what is, for me, the central question of this Torah portion: how active a role do we believe God plays in our lives?

We have many ways of dodging this question. My rationalizations about God acting through nature are one. Laments over the inscrutability of God’s ways are another. And simple disengagement is yet another. Thus I can, every day, praise God as “shomei’a tefillah,” the hearer of prayers, with near total mindlessness.

Blame it on that missing “And God spoke to Moses,” but the immediacy of this Torah portion’s words compels me to confront the question of God’s role in my life. And what I find is this: If I can I believe that God is mindful of us, if I can believe that He hears our prayers, even those that go unfulfilled, if I can believe that He records, seals, counts and measures our every action, then I can also believe that God can react to our actions with those of His own. Indeed, the tone and tenor of this week’s Torah portion, filled as it is with fury at our recalcitrance, indignation at our treatment of His creation, yet ultimately mindfulness of our covenant, is precisely what I would expect from the righteous yet loving God in whom I believe.

To admit to myself that God acts directly in my life is a leap for me. But it’s a leap that the direct, passionate and very personal words with which our Torah portion opens, beckons me to take. In making that leap, I feel I am leaving aside any semblance of the semi-deism that I once thought lent my religious practices an air of skeptical respectability. Yet to say that one’s actions, at times at least, are worthy of a divine response is to touch that life with a certain nobility. And it forces me to ask the question, whose approval am I really seeking? Whose wrath do I really fear?
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT