B'Chukotai: What Did You Just Say?

For Congregation Ner Shalom

At last night's congregational meeting, I mentioned my drash for tonight. What I said about it was that I had nothing. The only trigger I had was that on Wednesday I'd asked Siri to plot a route to Urban Adamah in Berkeley, to which Siri replied, "I'm sorry, Irwin, I cannot find any places matching Urban Octomom."

The level of misunderstanding that we all experience at this moment of the world, enhanced by our imperfect text technologies, is staggering. Even without the devices, we live in a world where communication is by nature incomplete. I am limited to the words that exist in the language, with a few Yiddishism thrown in for color. I am limited to one word at a time. Even though I might be experiencing thoughts, feelings and physical sensations simultaneously, I can only convey them sequentially, which means I have to prioritize or omit and hope that you still manage to have the sense of my experience that I want you to have.

Written words are even more deficient. I cannot convey my tone of voice, which carries a tremendous amount of information. Many of us know the famous story about a telegram from Trotsky to Stalin, following Lenin's death, as the two are jockeying for power. Stalin proudly reads the contents of the message to his supporters: "You were right. And I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin and I should apologize. Signed, Leon Trotsky." Stalin's followers go wild, until an old man raises his hand. "Comrade Stalin, I point out that Trotsky, like me, is a Jew. Perhaps I can clarify his message. May I read the telegram?" The paper is handed to him, and now he reads it: "You were right? And I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin and I should apologize? Signed, Leon Trotsky."

Words on the page give only a piece of the picture in the best of times. And then what happens if the words seem so contrary to our lived experience that they can't possibly mean what they say on the surface?

I wondered about this problem as I read the beginning of this week's Torah portion, the last one of Leviticus, called Bechukotai. It famously opens (or famously in some circles),

Im b'chukotai telechu v'et mitzvotay tishm'ru v'asitem otam...

"If you walk amidst my laws and observe my commandments and do them, then..."

Then...well, all sorts of good stuff will follow. Rain in its season. Crops. Peace. Victory. Progeny.

And some verses later, in contrast,

V'im lo tishm'u li v'lo ta'asu et kol hamitzvot ha'eleh...

If you do not obey me and do not do all these commandments, then...

Then...well, all sorts of curses will befall you. Disease. Defeat. Humiliation. Famine. Dissatisfaction.

If you're good you get good stuff. If you're bad, gevalt. The question for me is, even at the time it was set down in Torah, was there anyone who could have believed it to be true? Every human experience tells us that terrible things happen. Rain comes or doesn't come or comes in too great a quantity.

Crops some years. No crops other years. Disease and healing and disease again. Bad things happen to people who sincerely try to follow the law. And blessings accrue to those who blithely and obvously do not.

So at the time this was written, and in all the days and millenia since, how could this not come off as false? It clearly could not be heard as a statement of the nature of things. So instead it comes off as a political harangue, designed to pressure or shame people into following a law that's all-consuming, perhaps unreasonably so.

And I have to say, with a deep sigh, that this is the kind of thing that gives Judaism a bad rep. This is the kind of thing that drove a lot of people in this room out of Hebrew school and out of shul. A theology that on the surface says, "If bad stuff happens to you it is your fault."

But I am still in love with Torah, and don't feel a need for divorce just because of some bad words between us. 

So I'm going to take the time and revisit the text a few different ways. The first is along the lines of the Stalin joke. Maybe what we're missing is the proper tone of voice in this lengthy text message. For instance, when I say to my kid, "If you don't learn how to eat properly at a dinner table, it will ruin your prospects in love and business," not that I've ever said that, am I offering a curse? Follow the laws of the table or thou shalt a pariah be!

Or am I expressing my own hopes and, more eloquently, my own anxieties? I can't control my child's successes or failures in a future that's beyond me; advice, enriched with ample exaggeration about the dire consequences at stake is, sometimes, all I have to offer as a vessel for my hope and my love.

So we might read the text more kindly, more forgivingly, with that idea in mind. We might imagine that God or Moses or whoever wrote this wanted so badly for people to love this law, to live inside this delicate, complex system of commandment and succeed there, that they poured out their hopes and their fears into these inadequate words. What he or she or they meant us to hear might have been something more like, "Do it! Do it! If you follow these principles, good things will happen, I just know it! And if you don't do these things, I totally fear calamity could be at hand!"

That is indeed a kinder voice. A voice that maybe we understand better in our maturity than we did in our youth when so many of us fled the authoritarian voices of home and religion.

Or - get ready to shift gears - we might re-read this opening text of Bechukotai as a kind of environmental message. That there are laws, limits, that must be obeyed if we are to thrive on the land. And if we ignore those, then disease and drought and famine will surely follow. (As if...)

For those of us in this room, in this dry, dry state, in this ever-warming era, reading the text this way requires no leap at all. Are the laws of Torah enough to save our planet? Not clear, although the principles behind many of them would help. There are laws in Leviticus about helping each other, even helping your enemy. Laws about not just taking but leaving, so that the poor and the stranger may eat. Laws about the shmitah year, the sabbatical year, like the one we're in, the law that says that at least one seventh of the time, you've got to let things be. Nature has to heal. You also have to heal from your impulse to own the earth. There is true wisdom, deep wisdom, in these Levitical laws.

Under this kind of reading, the predicted calamities are not punishments, but the consequences of shortsightedness. Of living without reflection; of ignoring our deep, collective earth wisdom.

Okay, one last re-read of the text that relates to an oddity in the opening language. Why would God say, Im bechukotai telechu v'et mitzvotay tishm'ru... "If you walk amidst my laws and observe my commandments then blah blah blah...?" Wouldn't it be enough simply to say, "If you observe my commandments?" What is the difference between "laws" - chukot - and "commandments" - mitzvot? And what is this about "walking" anyway?

While we translate the word chok or chukah as "law", it is not just any law of Torah. Laws in Torah are of three sorts. There are mishpatim, the kinds of law that serve an obvious purpose. When we are instructed not to cheat or hate or told to leave fruit and grain for the poor or to pay our workers on time, all of which are commanded in Leviticus, we can understand the benefit of the law, the reason behind it. They are the kind of ground rules we would naturally want to set for our communities.

Then there are mitzvot, things that are commanded by God that we might not have come up with, but once they're commanded, we can see the sense in them.

In contrast to these, chukim or chukot are laws that are in no way self-explanatory. Decrees that we are expected to follow simply because they were commanded, without understanding why. Our dietary laws are an example. We might chatter nowadays about the health reasons for not eating pork. But Torah offers no such justification. It offers no reason at all. We are expected, or were in history expected, to to follow chukot without knowing why. Maybe out of faith. Maybe, like kashrut often, simply because it's what we do.

So maybe chukot represent something beyond law. They represent the inexplicable. The stuff, the demands, thrown at us by God or by this Creation, that don't have any satisfying rhyme or reason. We might understand the mechanics of disease or poverty or loneliness; of earthquake or drought or depression. But even if they are understandable, they do not feel reasonable, they do not feel fair. As a bumper sticker might say, chok happens.

And if chukot represent the unpreventable, inexplicable stuff we're handed, then the challenge is really in how we respond. Torah says im bechukotai telechu... if you walk amidst my chukot.

Meaning, maybe, that there will be rain and abundance and peace if you remember to walk. In all the hardship we have to field and even the irrational good luck that we sometimes have, the important thing is to walk. Not to get stuck. Not to grind to a standstill. Keep moving. Stay limber. Don't let the burdens pin you to the earth; don't let hardship shackle your feet. We all know that tightrope walkers keep their balance by continuing forward.

So if we keep moving, spiritually I mean, not allowing trouble to immobilize us, then we still have a fighting chance of experiencing some sense of abundance, of fullness, of ripeness, of peace, even in the midst of all the crap.

One last word about this walking bit. A few verses later, at the end of all the promises of blessing, God tantalizingly says: v'hit'halachti b'toch'chem - "then I will walk around among you," or, maybe, "I will walk within you."

Our walking amidst the chukot is met by God's walking amidst us. Our spiritual nimbleness arouses a divine nimbleness. So that we dance together, Fred and Ginger in lockstep.

And maybe that is exactly how we remain nimble in those toughest of moments. We imagine God, we imagine the Shechinah, at our side, bopping along next to us on the road, maybe even dipping us on the dance floor.

This is not an article of faith. It seems to me we don't need exactly to believe it. We just need to imagine it. Not in lieu of trying to change our situations; of enlisting help as we need it; of doing the hard work. But this adds another dimension to our grit; it adds a supernal dance and good company. It adds the possibility of new direction or renewed momentum. It provides not a substitute for but an enrichment of our sometimes painful earthly experience.

So maybe this piece of Torah is about our soul journey. Or maybe it's about preserving this planet. Or maybe it's about Torah's hopes and fears for us. But I do know that when Torah says to me something that makes as much sense as "urban octomom," I must work under the presumption that somehow I heard it wrong.