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Bahar-BeHukkotai 5778

May 11, 2018

A D’var Torah for Bahar-BeHukkotai 
by Rabbi Bruce Alpert ’11

We are surrounded by layers of reality. . .   There are swarms of ghosts, spirits, phantoms, souls, angels and devils. . .   The smallest pebble has a life of its own. . .   Everything is alive.  And everything is God or God’s intention. . .

These lines are from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny & Alexander.  They are attributed to a pious Jew who seemingly magically saves two children from the clutches of their evil stepfather.  One of the children, the sensitive Alexander, has perceived this layered reality all along as his father’s ghost has become his companion in grief.

I have never been much into mysticism.  My hesitancy is not so much based on rational skepticism but rather on my inability to understand mysticism’s subtlety and nuance.  But the juxtaposition of two verses in this week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bekhukotai, have led me to wonder whether they are not indeed pointing toward a different layer of reality.

The two verses are 13 and 14 in Chapter 26 of Leviticus and they read as follows:  “I the Lord am your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments . . .”   The consequences of disobeying God are graphically, even brutally detailed over the next 23 verses in a section of Torah known as the Tokhehah, or the Admonition.

I find those two verses enigmatic.  What does it mean for God to have broken the bars of our yoke if only to re-yoke us in servitude to Him?  And most certainly we are being re-yoked, for neither the commandments nor the punishments associated with breaking them apply to anyone else.  Having been freed from Egyptian slavery we are not free in the sense of having the ability to act like others.  We may have traded masters, but we remain bondmen.

In trying to understand this enigma, I am struck by the perception that both the verses that precede and those that follow these two share a strange trait:  they all seem completely unmoored to reality.   The preceding verses speak of the world we will inhabit if we follow God’s commandments.  In such a world, our bounty will be so great that we will continue to thresh our grain until it overtakes the time to bring in this year’s vintage of wine, and we will continue to take in that vintage until it overtakes the time to sow again.  Vicious beasts will not threaten us.  Five of us will chase away a hundred of our enemies, and a hundred of us will chase away ten thousand.

The verses that follow are equally fantastic.  God metes out punishment for our disobedience in calculated disproportion to our offense.  Skies of iron, earth of brass, pestilence, dispersion and faintness of heart are all promised to us in seven-fold proportion to our sins.  As punishments pile upon one another, I find myself wondering how any person or people can endure even a small fraction of this.  Like the blessings that obedience will bring us, so too the curses for disobedience seem to defy human reality.

Which leads me back to verses 13 and 14.  The enigma I sense there disappears if the yoke of slavery that God broke for us in Egypt isn’t one of servitude to a higher power.  Perhaps that yoke is, instead, a blindness to the many layers of reality that surround us.  Perhaps what God gave us in all His signs and portents and wonders in Egypt was the ability to see the world more fully – in ways that transcend mere chronological causality.

Seeing the world this way is, I believe, an essential part of who we are as Jews.  Each year at our Passover seder we break the yoke of time and see, not our ancestors, but ourselves as coming out of Egypt.  Each day in our prayers we break the yoke of causality and declare that God, in His goodness, makes creation new every day.  To me, these ideas don’t deny reality.  Rather, they break a yoked view of reality and open one to new ways of perceiving it.

The biologist JBS Haldane was said to have remarked that the world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. Perhaps everything is alive.  Perhaps everything is part of God or God’s intention.  Perhaps we are indeed surrounded by layers of reality.  And perhaps, in liberating us from Pharaoh’s service and compelling us into His own, God gave us an inkling into this broader, deeper reality – a reality all the more terrifying because of its unfathomable depth, but also one in which our threshing can overtake our vintage, and our vintage can overtake our sowing.

Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT, and is the Chair of AJR’s Board of Trustees.