31 May 2024

Week of 26 May – 01 June 2024

Torah portion Lev. 26:3-27:34   Haftarah: Jer. 16:19-17:14

Theme: Doing right because it is right

This week’s parasha opens with an account of a rather mechanical scheme of reward and retribution, at least so it seems. In other words: if you do good and follow God’s commandments, you will prosper and be rewarded, if you do not do good, i.e. disobey God’s commandments, you will suffer retribution. Either you are blessed by God in multiple ways, due to your godly behaviour or you will incur his curse upon you because you strayed from him. In this scheme, everything has a reason.

The reality in daily living is that this is not true. In fact it can be even vice versa: people trying to live honest and just lives experience pain and loss, whereas careless people who do not ask what is right or wrong, prosper. These discrepancies have been bothering Jewish sages throughout the centuries. So rather than philosophizing about the problem of evil, the sages have approached this challenge by their unique way of studying the holy scriptures. Over the years they have perfected the art of discussion and the art of struggling with the actual meaning of texts, by looking at texts with contradicting meanings. Their unique approach is to discuss texts in relation to the context; and also study them together with others, balancing and even counterbalancing the texts. As we can see from the opening verses of Parashat Bechukotai, it is very dangerous and even outright wrong, to focus on just a few verses from the Torah, single them out and teach or believe them in an absolute way. There should always be a balanced reading, when studying the Torah and the Tanach.

With regard to this “reward for the just and punishment for the unjust” scheme in Parashat Bechukotai, the Bible provides a few texts which counterbalance this message. In the Tanach itself we find a discussion about why the good suffer and the unjust prosper (cf. Ps 37:1; Job 12:6; Jer 12:1). As in real life, no answer or explanation is given. The Jewish sages who included these scriptrues into their holy canon, knew that there is no such automatism; on the contrary: many pious and righteous people have suffered terribly and still do, while others seem to prosper and get away with it, despite their evil deeds. The question of why is left unanswered.

However, Parashat Bechukotai can still make us aware, that our actions and our conduct in life have consequences, not only for us but for others as well – be it for good or for bad. Therefore, since we cannot foresee the future, we are challenged to choose wisely, not incurring disaster but benefiting us and humankind. In addition, as one commentary put it, only in a world where we are never sure whether we will be rewarded or punished for our actions, we have the possibility of leading a truly moral life, i.e. ”to do the right because it is right – and not for any other advantage.” (Plaut, p.875)

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How do you personally struggle with the concept of “prosperitiy for the just and punishment for the wicked”? 2. Think of an example of “doing right because it is right”.

Bibliography: The Torah, A Modern Commentary by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: 2006)

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Barbara Kauffmann, Germany, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010, 2011, 2012


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