Parashat Behar-Bechukotai: God In Our Grief

Where is God when we are grieving after the bad things happen?

Commentary on Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34

What are the Torah’s laws for correct behavior, and what happens if you do or don’t follow them? In Behar and Bechukotai, the last Torah portions in the Book of Leviticus (which are often read together), we learn both the rules and the happy and unhappy consequences for failing to follow them. 

The rules are many, but pared down they amount to this: If you keep God’s commandments and perform all the prescribed righteous behaviors (say, observing holy days, following the agricultural laws and acting righteously in interpersonal relations), you will be rewarded with every blessing imaginable. You, your family, your crops, and your animals — all will flourish, and the consequences of your obedience will ripple out into your world. You will have peace and security. “I will be ever present in your midst,” God promises. 

And woe betide, if you fail to comply, for you will be cursed. And not just you.  All that is yours, all spurned, decimated, struck down, destroyed, smitten.

Even before children of many religious traditions have read a single sacred text for themselves, they quickly come quickly to infer this cause-and-effect theology, which reflects how they are treated by their parents and teachers —Rewards for the good, punishments for the bad (or simply naughty). Children raised in this way can draw a line between small acts of thievery or spiteful thoughts to their parent’s divorce, their brother’s broken leg, the death of grandparents. It was all their fault. Even if they just had a bad thought. 

This childlike way of thinking follows many of us into adulthood, even when experience has told us to disavow it. We are still drawing lines between failing to fast on Yom Kippur and malignant cancer or a flash flood. And should we be haughty enough to imagine everything is going well, we often imagine that our next mistake will bring on a calamity that breaks our heart. 

“I don’t know why one person gets sick and another does not … I cannot believe that God ‘sends’ illness to a specific person for a specific reason,” wrote Rabbi Harold Kushner in his thought-changing book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I refused to read his book when it first came out in 1981 because it was a bestseller and I was a snob. And then I read it. Now, I reread it every year and teach it each time I train hospital chaplains. It’s in my head every time I meet with good people who, undeservedly, know grief. 

As we know, Jews do not interpret the Torah literally. While the Torah’s God sends down punishment, Kushner’s God does not. Kushner’s God is not so trivial as to punish us to teach us a lesson. His God does not give us “only as much as we can handle.” Bad things happen to everyone. We have terrible losses. And they happen whether we have led exemplary lives or so-so ones.  

Where is God when we are grieving after the bad things happen? God, Kushner teaches, is with us when we grieve. God is with us when our communities organize to support us as mourners (and beyond). And God is with us when total strangers hold us up with random acts of kindness.  

One might ask, shouldn’t an all powerful God be able to do more than just dispatch agents of divine love? More than being present in that space where love is given and received? Many who have been supported in their grief by Kushner’s teachings and the experience of being embraced by companions would say that is power enough.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on May 12, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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