Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
There is something profoundly unsettling about B’hukotai. It seems to posit a world that we know, empirically, does not exist. It claims that there is a direct correlation between our actions and the natural order of the universe. Leviticus 26:3-5 promises unambiguously: “If you follow My laws and
faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant you rains in their season … you shall eat your fill of bread….” Verses 14-16 warn just as clearly: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments … I will wreak misery upon you ….” The seeming system of reward and punishment that these biblical passages proclaim appears to contradict the troubling reality that we witness, in which good people suffer, and evil people often prosper.
Passages like these seem to provide justification for those who reject both faith and God. How often do we hear, in the face of personal trauma or tragedy, “I can no longer believe in God” or “I can’t believe in a God who would do this”? How are we to understand God’s threats and promises?
According to the biblical scholar Nehama Leibowitz, our ancestors regarded blessings and curses, such as those in B’hukotai, as forms of prayer: these are the things that people hoped for, even willed to happen, in their longing for a world in which justice would visibly prevail. Perhaps this parashah is telling us, in its own theological language, that there is a moral order to the universe that is intrinsically connected to the natural order of the universe–and that the two orders are mutually dependent. In these teachings, it is as if God gives humankind every opportunity to discern that human action is intrinsic, and essential, to the proper functioning of the cosmos.
Over and over again, the Torah enjoins us to act, to do, and to be because we “were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:21), because we “know the feelings of the stranger” (Exodus 23:9), and through these experiences have been given the opportunity to glimpse this truth. This is why we were chosen to bear witness to God’s revelation that “I, your God mil” am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).