This weeks Sedra is Bekhukota'y, which is the last portion in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), the third book of the Torah. In Hebrew this book is also called "Torat Cohanim" - the teaching of the priests, for it deals almost exclusively with the rites of the Temple -- and the Tabernacle that came before it in the desert. The reading begins in Leviticus 26, in the third verse: "Im bekhukota'y telekhu v'et mitzvota'y tishm'ru... If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." These first two verses of the text are followed by eight more verses that offer God's rewards for being good followers. Then on the fourteenth verse, we are given the other side of the coin, "Ve'im lo tishme'u li... But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down by your enemies; your foes shall rule over you, and you shall flee though no one pursues you." (Lev. 26:14-17) and these verses are followed by a veritable harangue that goes on for thirty verses. So the "bad news" is three times longer and darker than the "good news" of the opening verses of how well we will do if we follow God's teaching and live by His mitzvot. On the face of it, this seems like something we would want to avoid reading altogether. First, because we "know" that "the good things in life" are not predicated on 'gifts from the Gods.' The rains follow a patern in nature and events follow a patern in human behavior. Some say that God does not exist in this formula. If a young man that has embarked on a life in crime years earlier undertakes to rob a gas station on the evening that we happen to be there -- we may become the innocent victims of his years of anti-social and criminal behavior. This is, of course, true. But it is also true that the Torah teaches not only a creed of personal behavior but also a system of interpersonal relations that can and should creat a society that would foster a life free of crime and violence -- affecting both the potential criminal and his probable victims.
Our sages spoke of the teachings of God that are summarized in our portion in the term hukot and mitzvot -- laws and "commandments." They pointed out that God, in all His omnipotence, does not impose Himself suddenly upon mankind. In his very first encounter with man, in the Garden of Eden, after man had eaten of the Forbidden Fruit, we read, "Vayikra adonay elohim el haadam vayomer ayeka... -- and the Lord God called unto the man and said unto him, `where are you?" [Gen. 3:9] When God planned to reveal Himself to Israel at Sinai, he told them to prepare for three days, and when it was time, we read, "Vayered adonay al har Sinai el rosh hahar vayikra adonay el Moshe -- and the Lord came down upon mount Sinai to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses..." [Ex. 19:20] Only after that do we read,"And the Lord spoke all these words, saying..." Before we can hear, we must be open to the message.
So God came down upon Mount Sinai and spoke to Moshe and the Children of Israel, and He gave them 'hukot and mitzvot -- laws and "commandments,"' and now he says, "you have a choice." One can be with God or contrary to God. God can predict what would happen in either case -- because the teachings of God work with nature and through nature, and those who contravene Him are acing against nature itself -- and need to know the consequence of thier choice.
You can show a book that contains all the answers to the questions of existence to an illiterate and he will not benefit from its message at all. Present a grand vista to a blind person and you will not hear an exclamation of surprise or admiration. Place a deaf person in the midst of the Boston Pops orchestra or the Mormon Tabernacle choir -- and dont be surprised if he will not tap his foot to the beat of the music. Likewise the person who denies God in his heart and in his intelect will not be impressed by Torah or by God's handywork of creation.
Still, God's law will abide, for it is the law of the creator, and the rule of His creation. You cannot spit against the wind and expect your face to stay dry. Yes, God is all around us -- but we still need, as the prophet Isaiah admonishes us, to "seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon Him while he is near." [Isaiah 55:6] Is there a time that God hides so that He may not be found? Is there a time when God, who fills the whole universe, is not near enough to hear us? No, indeed! But the prophet wants us to understand that We may be so lost that we cant find Him, we may be so confounded that we no longer know that He is near. Thus Isaiah invites us to open ourselves to Him, if we are to hear his message and receive His blessing.
God can get along very nicely, thank you, without any human contact, without our hymns, our prayers or our sacrifices. The purpose of prayer is not to give us a chance to ask God, but rather to give us a chance to find ourselves -- so that we may relate to God. We need to pray, as our ancestors offered sacrifices, to be close to Him. To share with him not only our anxiety but our wellbeing. We need to believe in God in order to put our world, and our place in the scheme of things in proper persepective. If we do not, we bring upon ourselves all the evils that happen as a result of having gone against the nature of things.
I remember, a number of years ago, conversing with a very well educated woman who was dying from cancer. She was a college professor who taught a course on death and dying. She was very angry, with herself, for being ill. She told me that she realized fully that she had, somehow, brought about her own illness. She did not know why, and she did not know how to turn it around. I suggested to her that possibly it was because she had become so full of her own importance that she did not allow God into her life, to learn to live -- or to die with grace.
In olden days they would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, changing their daily routine thereby. They would offer a gift to God -- a cow, a heifer or a sheep. They would make a meal with the priests and the Levites, before God. They dedicated the meal, and they dedicated themselves thereby -- which means that they opened themselves to the experience. We dedicate nothing. We pray in a hurry, eat in a hurry, love our families in a hurry.
The Torah, in the third book, teaches us to take time out to be with God, to be with our people, yes, even to be with ourselves. It teaches us that unless we hear the call -- we will never hear the speech. Unless we open our eyes, we shall never see the glory of Gods presence, and unless we tune in to Gods frequency we shall miss the sound of His splendid symphony of love and harmony of His marvelous creation. Without the glory of His presence among us, we are lost. We are no longer unique. This Shabbat is also called Shabbat Zakhor, in which we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to Israel in the desert. Amalek was an enemy tribe of the Israelites that attacked us when we were most vulnerable. Maybe we are commanded to remember the Amalek because there is a little Amalek in all of us! We all attack ourselves when we are vulnerable. We cut ourselves off from family, friends, and from God... When the Amalek within us attacks, we must remember the experience of Sinai. We must recall that to hear God we must first harken to His voice. Hear the call, and respond with our own Hineni -- Here I am, Lord! Clear, loud, sure and resonant -- affirming the past, building the future. Amen
This week we complete reading in the Torah the last portion in the Book of Leviticus, a portion called Bekhukotie. The text begins with these words, "Im bekhukotie telekhu veet mitzvotie tishmeru vaasitem otam venatati gishmekhem beitam venatna haaretz yevula veetz hasade yiten et piryo. These words translate to say, - If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." [Lev. 26:3,4] This is a very interesting passage when read in English, for it suggest a special relationship between Gods statutes and laws and the very forces of nature. The people are promised that by observing the teachings of the Torah they will actually assure for themselves the blessings of a good harvest.
Surely, as young as you are or as old and experienced as you may be, you realize that nature is nature, and drought occurs as and when it does, for religious people as it does for the Godless. Not only that, but we all know that very often the Godless, the wicked non-believers seem to be blessed with much success, leading the faithful to question their own obedience. Which may lead us to ask, is the Torah wrong?
However, when we read the text in the original Hebrew, we discover that there may be a different emphasis in the text that somehow got lost in the translation. Our sages have taught us that the Torah was given to wise people, and not to fools. The question asked above is one advanced by those who do not believe, who think that religious people are dupes who foolishly think that faith in God is for the purpose of immediate gratification. They suggest that religious people approach the Almighty claiming, "See, God, I have said my prayers -- so pay-up!" This, of course, is not the case! We seek to learn the ways of God because He is the source of blessing and of goodness, and we feel that by emulating His qualities we can change our attitude to what happens in nature because it is nature.
Let us look at the Hebrew text, and allow me to give you an alternative look at the meaning of the words. Im bekhukotie telekhu - If you walk by means of My laws [of nature] veet mitzvotie tishmeru while at the same time observing my mitzvot (those special instructions that defy translation, that are called commandments when in fact they are Fatherly suggestions of doing right and not wrong) in such a manner that vaasitem otam you shall do them as part of your very nature. Here comes the problem part of the text: venatati gishmekhem beitam and I shall make it so that you shall find fulfillment in due time, venatna haaretz yevula veetz hasade yiten et piryo. even as earth yields its produce and the trees give forth their fruit.
The pivotal word here is geshem. In its most simple form, the word means rain. However, our text does not say
I will give you rains in their season, but rather I will give you your rains in their season, and we must ask what makes the rain ours? Does it rain specifically on those who love the Lord and do His will? Surely we all know that it does not! Then we have to assume that gishmekhem - your rains has a different meaning. In studying the root gimel shin mem we find that lehagshim means to fulfill or bring to fruition. That, I believe, is the true meaning of the word in our text. Only fools would expect favorable treatment at the hand of God to make it rain on their land while their neighbors suffer from a drought. However, a God fearing man who conditions himself to see the blessing in every situation will accept a drought as a judgement from God that must have its own reasons and its attendant blessings, even as the seasons of God come and go, the harvest is picked and the field gives its wheat for bread.
The teachings of God are a preparation for adversity as well as prosperity. In good times every soul is sustained by well-being. However, it times of distress, grief, affliction and discontent, the spirit of the Godless shrinks and suffers greatly, while the servants of God follow His teachings, finding solace comfort and reassurance in Gods love and compassion through His Mitzvot - which prepared them for times of trial and trouble.
We read in Davids poetry this opening statement, Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scorners. But whose delight is in the Torah of the Lord; and in his Torah he meditates day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season; its leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. [Psalms 1:1-3]
This week's portion
of the Torah is called Behukota'y and it is the last portion in the book
of Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, which is called Leviticus in English.
The reading begins in Leviticus 26, in the third verse: "Im bekhukota'y
telekhu v'et mitzvota'y tishm'ru... If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments
and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and
the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their
fruit." These first two verses of the text are followed by eight more verses
that offer God's rewards for being good followers. Then on the fourteenth verse,
we are given the other side of the coin, "Ve'im lo tishme'u li... But if
you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn
my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments,
and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror
on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away.
You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my
face against you, and you shall be struck down by your enemies; your foes shall
rule over you, and you shall flee though no one pursues you." [Lev. 26:14-17]
There are three covenants made between God and Israel in the Torah. Once at Mount Sinai, when the people witness the revelation of God's Torah in the smoke and the fire of the mountain where God first spoke to Moshe. The second time in the wilderness of Sinai, away from the mountain, just before the Israelites are about to enter the west side of the Promised Land and the last time in the wasteland west of Jericho, as Moshe is about to die and the people are about to enter their new homeland.
Twice, in connection with these covenants, the text of the Torah, tells us of a "choice" if you follow my teaching you shall be blessed, and if you do not follow, evil shall befall you. The first is in this week's portion, the second in Deuteronomy, just before the end of our Torah text. Why? Why was there no "warning" the first time, at Sinai?
This week we are celebrating a special holiday in our nation - Memorial Day. What is it all about? For many people it is the week-end when the Indi-500 car-race is run. That is not the reason for the holiday, of course it is the time to remember our fellow citizens who made the supreme sacrifice and gave their life for their country, in wars from 1776 to 2003, from Valley Forge to the valley of the Tigris-Euphrates. Tens of thousands of Americans gave their lives to keep our nation safe.
Some people say that we live in the MTV age, where everything that comes before our eyes can hold our attention for a time limit of three minutes but surely this is not so. Surely we can spend time, a few minutes, an hour, a day, contemplating where we came from, and where we are going. For if we can't we may well go astray, we may go down the path that leads to perdition! Freedom and democracy, the hallmark of our American civilization, the pride of our society, is not guaranteed by the constitution and the bill of rights. It came to be in the din and smoke of battle, and it survives through the life's blood of those who are ever gallantly on guard, lest the powers of pettiness and piracy, lunacy and litigation drag us into a morass of suspicion and social separation that will undermine our continued well being and even our very existence.
Judaism teaches us that we are forever the people who stand at the foot of mount Sinai, witnessing the revelation of God, in person, one on one seeing the amazing sight, feeling the tremor of ther ground beneath our feet and hearing the thunder and the voice. Yet, even the first generation the ones that were standing at the mountain in consequence of Egypt, forgot what they had seen within a few days of the departure of Moshe who climbed the mountain to bring back the Torah. What chance is there for the following generation, or the one that comes after it?
At Sinai there was the sound and the fury and it was the "foot print" of our God, Master of heaven and earth, creator and liberator of mankind. But the children of Israel, in the fashion of children everywhere, where more interested in the wrapping and color of the gift they received from the Almighty, than in the precious gift he had bestowed upon them. Moshe had barely disappeared onto the smoke and the mist of the mountain, and the people insisted to Aharon, "Arise, make for us Elohim, which shall go before us; and as for this Moshe, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him." [Exodus 23:1] Can you believe your ears? Can anyone seriously ask, "make for us Elohim, " after the fire and the smoke and the thunderous sound of the speech of God?
That is why at the time of the second covenant, God does not depend on audio visual aids, but spells out His covenant "as you sow, so shall you reap" if you obey my instruction, all will be well; if you fail, you shall be punished, and if you persist, your punishment shall persist, and if you shall still not learn your lesson, your punishment and your suffering shall continue to increase. The "warning" in our text this week encompasses thirty two verses. The "warning" in the book of Deuteronomy is fifty four verses long. The message is the same: remember! Learn from your mistakes. It is much worse to repeat an error than merely to make a mistake out of ignorance or foolishness.
We are Jewish heirs to a most wonderful and rich legacy that encompasses patriarchs and matriarchs, sharing equally in the burden and glory of path finders, of pioneers seeking new ways in a world that is neither kind nor forgiving, and yet marching on, discovering grace and beauty even in the starkest and most hostile wilderness. Our progenitors cleared a path for us, and we must remember them, recognize their achievements, and follow in their foot steps.
This week’s Torah portion
is Bekhukotie, which is the last portion in the book of Vayikra, Leviticus.
The text we are reading begins with the words, "Im bekhukota'y telekhu
v'et mitzvota'y tishm'ru... If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments
and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and
the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their
fruit." [Lev. 26:3,4] These first two verses of the text are followed by
eight more verses that offer God's rewards for being good followers. Then on
the fourteenth verse, we are given the other side of the coin, "Ve'im lo
tishme'u li... But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments,
if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe
all my commandments, and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you:
I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause
life to pine away. You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat
it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down by your enemies;
your foes shall rule over you, and you shall flee though no one pursues you."
[Lev. 26:14-17] These verses are followed by a veritable harangue that goes
on for thirty verses.
Our text spoke of the teachings of God that are summarized in our portion in the term “hukot” and “mitzvot” -- laws and... “mitzvot.” Some would translate the word as “commandments,” – but as we know, “mitzvot” is not quite the same. Visiting the sick, burying the dead, and helping bring a poor girl to the wedding canopy cannot really be called commandments – and neither can you command anyone to love, not even if the object of that love is God. So “mitzvot” will have to stay just that, and we must teach the word the true meaning of the word, and how to perform these “mitzvot.”
Which brings me to the meat of my message. I spent a very intensive three days in Washington D.C., participating in the American Israel Political Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference. AIPAC is the organization that educates Americans to the character and needs of the Jewish state. This year’s conference main theme was, “Israel – an American value.”
You would think that such a conference would be a “Jewish” affair – full of Rabbis and synagogue goers, fundamentalists and politically “right” activists. You would be wrong if you did. There were fewer than a hundred Rabbis at this conference – and at the main evening gala you could have had a business meeting of the joint house and senate of the United states, as more than fifty percent of both houses were in attendance. We were addressed by many of the United States top leaders, both from the Republican and the Democratic parties. Present among us were close to a thousand college students from some of the finest universities in the country – presidents of the student body, females and males, Jews and non-Jews, Black, Hispanic and pink/white – all sharing a love for democracy and equality before the law.
I want to tell you, though, about the first session: we met in the Washington Convention Center, a huge facility. There were over five thousand delegates, from every state in the Union. There were, as you would expect, foreign dignitaries from Israel and a number of other nations. However, the first featured speaker was sheriff Michael Brown, from Bedford County, Va., in his Sheriff’s uniform, tall and exuding authority. He told us that when the planes struck on 9/11, he was a U.S. air marshal working in D.C. – and the first call he took after the attack was from the Embassy of Israel, offering help. He told us that Israel shared expertise with his agency and with the Homeland Security department when it was created. He said that he had been in Israel three times since that day in 2001, together with fellow law-enforcement officers. They underwent vigorous training in Israel’s treasure trove of experience dealing with the threat of terror and the ways to prevent terror from recurring. He finished by telling us that he, a sheriff in Virginia, was convinced that Israel was and American value.
Next we heart from Ms. Annie McTavish, obviously of Scottish extraction, who captured the audience from her first words. “I guess I don’t have to look at the list of participants,” she said, “to know that there are not too many McTavishes here today...” And its not as if she was raised in a Jewish neighborhood, either – she is a native of the State of Washington. However, she informed us, she was an avid supporter of the ideals of human rights and equality for all humans, the need to protect spaceship earth, and the concept of helping to keep spaceship earth a viable living space. All these values, she realized, come to us from the source book of the Jewish people, the Hebrew Scriptures. That is why she is an activist, a member of AIPAC, and she shares the opinion that Israel is an American value.
Third to speak was Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, Democratic representative from California. She repeated some of the observations of Annie McTavish, and went on to speak of American Jewry’s contributions to the struggle for equal rights for all Americans, no matter their land of origin or skin color. She compared the struggle of Israel to live in peace with the struggle of all people to a fair share of “the good life.” Once again, like the speakers that came before her, she concluded that she was proud to support Israel in the House of Representatives, because Israel is an American value.
We were introduced to Clarence “Mac” Evans, who at age 17 was an American soldier landing at Omaha beach to bring succor to Nazi occupied Europe. With Patton’s third Army, he helped liberate the survivors of Dachau. Having seen the worst of man’s inhumanity to man, he supported the right of the Jews to have a homeland of their own, a democratic state in their ancient promised land. He, too, believed that Israel is an American value.
Monday evening, at a gala dinner that seated more than six thousand participants, sitting next to our own district’s representative, Ander Krenshaw, I heard the same sentiment from Dennis Haster, (R of IL) speaker of the house; Bill Frist, Majority leader of the Senate; Harry Reid, Democratic leader of the Senate; and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader of the house.
We heard from America’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, from senator Hilary Rohdam-Clinton, and from Israel’s minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni, former minister Natan Sharansky and prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
We spoke of peace and terrorism, of a time of opportunity, and the need to stay on top of things. We heard about the threat of an atomic weapon in the hands of Iran, and the need of bringing democracy to the Arab and Moslem world, as a way to educate that part of humanity to live in peace. “Democracies don’t go to war to resolve issues,” we were told - to which I can only add my own “amen.” May that dawn of peace come soon.
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