Parashat Behukotai 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Behukotai
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

Amongst our many struggles in interpreting Torah and apprehending G-d’s will is in how we view theodicy – how we reconcile the evil that permeates our world vis-à-vis our G-d of mercy and compassion. Arguably a close cousin in this struggle is how we view G-d who metes out blessing and curse, reward and punishment as a response to our conduct. Central to this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Behukotai is how G-d rewards us with blessing for fealty to the Mitzvot and imposes curse or punishment for violating G-d’s statutes and commandments.

While I characterize this struggle as ours, this may really be my own struggle. I shared this struggle with my interfaith clergy Torah study group. We have been meeting most weeks for about seven or so years now. We study Parashat Hashavua, sharing our differing perspectives and interpretations, always slipping in some time to discuss struggles within our congregation communities and our mostly shared view of how we confront the many injustices (racial injustice, economic injustice, gender discrimination, etc., etc.) facing our Kansas City community, our country and our world.

I have subsumed much of what these cherished clergy friends/colleagues/community leaders have taught me over the years, at least subconsciously incorporating their teaching into my own writing. However, this is the first time I have directly solicited their wisdom to jumpstart a D’var Torah.

Amongst the leading intellectual lights of the group is Rev. Dr. Wallace Hartsfield II. In addition to being one of the leading clergy voices in Kansas City – both within and beyond the African American community – he holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Emory University, serves in a chaired position on the faculty of Central Baptist Seminary and previously was an instructor at Morehouse College. When seeking some assistance and input he immediately rattled off several thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas along with Biblical citations.

Particularly, Rev. Dr. Hartsfield put forth two ideas that resonated for me: 1) whether this system that imposes curse/punishment for violating G-d’s “statutes and commandments,” can be characterized as a justice system of retribution by G-d, and 2) in that the enumerated curses focus largely on cursing the land, that there is a modern read on what land is cursed.

Addressing the second idea first, Ellen Davis in Opening Israel’s Scriptures discusses the significance of the land. “The land itself is an extended sanctuary.” (Davis at p. 80) However, if the mitzvot are not followed the land will not yield its produce. (Leviticus 26:20). Rashi in his commentary on Leviticus 18:28 references that, if we sin the land will vomit us out. (Metsudah Chumash/Rashi: Vayikra at p. 246).

As to a modern metaphor for the land, Rev. Dr. Hartsfield point to our communities and our neighborhoods. When our communities are afflicted by substandard and unaffordable housing, food deserts – i.e., there are little to no grocery stores or healthy food choice options – and communities in which predatory lenders abound, the land has indeed vomited us out.

Yet there seems to be on its face a disparity between who has done the sinning and who is being punished for that sin. There is a common perspective that human suffering, what is seemingly punishment, is not G-d driven but rather caused by human beings. That so long as suffering exists anywhere in the world we as human beings all bear responsibility to eradicate that suffering. So long as there are human beings who cause harm, that harm will be randomly and unjustly inflicted on those undeserving of punishment.

This is where I struggle and become angry at the unjust way in which human suffering is distributed in the world. This segues into the first topic, that the curses imposed by G-d for failure to observe the Mitzvot could be seen as retribution by G-d.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his seminal work The Prophets addresses Hosea’s perspective on G-d’s relationship with Israel – G-d’s pathos in conveying words of anger toward G-d’s people and imposing harsh punishment. Hosea finds the relationship of G-d and Israel to be analogous to his own marriage. According to Heschel, Hosea describes the relationship as not relegated to a legal responsibility, but also an inner attitude. The relationship is embodied in a reciprocal emotional, intimate experience. (Heschel at p. 73)

Hosea understood in the struggles and ultimately the reconciliation of his marriage the sorrow and pathos of G-d when they/we emotionally detach from G-d. According to Hosea, we need to move beyond action to acquire a concern for G-d that involves inwardness as well as action. (Ibid. at p. 74)

As a matter of reciprocity, it is not the curses – what G-d has done to us – that we should dwell on. Rather it is what G-d has felt for us. Just as G-d shows anger at our own lack of sensitivity and emotional detachment, G-d also knows of, and has sympathy for, our suffering. (Ibid. at p. 71)

Likewise, Heschel interprets the commandment to not oppress and to love the stranger as an obligation to have feeling for the heart of the stranger. (Ibid.) It is in becoming detached from that feeling wherein we produce a land that spews us out – our communities and our neighborhoods become afflicted by the injustices of poor and unaffordable housing, communities torn by violence and poverty, food deserts and predatory lending practices.

As Heschel quotes Hosea:

         For I desire love [hesed] and not sacrifice,
        Attachment to G-d rather than burnt offerings.
                                                                   Hosea 6:6
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Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.