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Parashat Bechukotai: Great Loss

The curses in this week's portion are a reminder of the calamities we all face.

Commentary on Parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34

In the ancient Near East, treaties were frequently concluded with a section of blessings and curses: blessings to prevail if the terms of the treaty are kept, and curses that will occur if they are broken. Bechukotai, the final Torah portion in Leviticus, follows this format. The text tells us that if the Israelites keep the Torah, then peace, plenty and divine closeness ensue. But if they do not, they should expect calamity: war, exile and environmental depredation.

Bechukotai paints a bleak picture of desolation, starvation and enslavement. And although the people are offered repeated opportunities to repent, as their situation worsens they become increasingly stuck. Paradoxically, in the face of such catastrophic loss it can become very difficult to grieve. Without grieving, little change can occur.

In our own times, facing such existential threats as nuclear warfare, ecosystem collapse and the “post-truth” era, it is very hard not to become numb. What can we as individuals do in the face of such all-pervasive dangers?

In matters of grief and mourning, Judaism has wisdom to share with the wider world. We know the importance of having context and permission to actively grieve. We know the importance of ritual markers in space and time. Most of all, we know the necessity of community, even in the loneliest stretches of our journey through loss.

Contemplating both the vast and terrifying challenges described in Bechukotai and those we ourselves face, I am reminded of the Truth Mandala, a ritual devised by the environmentalist scholar Joanna Macy. The Truth Mandala centers around five ritual items: a stone to represent fear and numbness, a stick to channel anger, an empty bowl to represent our sense of lack and longing, dry leaves to stand for our sorrow, and a fifth item that can represent any other feeling. Participants are invited as they feel moved to to step into the circle and, holding one of the objects, to speak the truth of the emotions it represents. It is understood that participants will sometimes speak as themselves, and sometimes on behalf of a greater collective. What is important is to share feelings and not just thoughts.

Macy originally called her scholarship “Despair and Empowerment Work,” recognizing the inherent connection between being able to feel and move our feelings, and being able to access change. As she writes: “Truth-telling is like oxygen: it enlivens us. Without it we grow confused and numb. With it, we experience our own authority.”

While the objects in the Truth Mandala represent painful aspects of our reality, like the curses in Bechukotai they also point to their own opposites. Our sorrow is in equal measure love, for we only mourn what we deeply care for. In expressing fear, we model trust and the courage it takes to speak up in a fear-phobic society. Anger has its source in our passion for justice. Emptiness is to be honored too, for it allows space for the new to arise.

And where is hope? Hope is the very ground of the practice itself, for without hope we would not be there at all. Strange though it may seem, without a commitment to carrying on living, we lose the reason to grieve.

As we read Bechukotai, perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that catastrophe is something that we, the human family, have encountered and coped with innumerable times in history. And like Joanna Macy, we know that what helps us survive the dark times is the power of ritual, the power of openly feeling our feelings, and the power of community to hold it all.

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