By David Cohen, Director of Congregational Learning
As the book of Leviticus comes to a close, we are given a different kind of accounting than we have gotten throughout. Leviticus is seen both as the listing of many of the details of the covenant between God and the Israelites. It is also seen as that book which teaches us most about holiness and how these rules and regulations help us attain that special relationship of becoming closer to God. Through certain actions and by behaving in certain ways, we are sanctified. The language however is mainly directed at the high priests of the children of Israel as a manual to keep and teach. As Leviticus comes to a close, an “assessment” is given that is directed right at the Israelites themselves. There are a lists of blessings that await you should these rules be followed and much longer list of punishments should these laws not be followed.
In the reform tradition, there has been much debate over how best to present this portion. For some, God as a punisher is not the way our tradition has often portrayed Adonai, the eternal spirit of the universe. For others, the listing of both blessing and curse is very much about the freedom of choice that is central to progressive views. In that line of thought, to only list blessings would not only be a weaker pedagogical approach (how can you learn what to do correctly without an example of what not to do?) but also, it would not emphasize the importance of choice. By showing clearly that man has two different ways (or often many) to react or behave, we see that we hold the cards. We have a clear path set in front of us and it is really in our power to choose the way of good or the way of evil. In fact, as scholars translate and present research for understanding B’chukotai, the literal translation of Halacha can be found. Most literally, it is “the way” or “the path.” In this context, the Halacha is not simply a set of rules, but the behaviors (or choices) that will lead us down “the path.”
What better time to have this discussion than during the time of the Counting of the Omer. As we wonder how we can both benefit from the commandments, and be most prepared for the commandments, we spend 49 days examining closely how we behave toward one another, where our deficiencies are, where our strengths are and what we need to work on in ourselves. As other scholars have noted, this is about a process. It is about a very self-examination followed by a commitment to improvement. Through these choices, we move forward. We progress. We transform. We become. And what do we become? We become holy. We become more holy than we were the year before. If we follow “the path” we become closer to God than we have ever been. If we did not make the better choices, we move further away from God. In fact, according to one scholar, even if we somehow stood pat, we would still be further from God, because this is about motion and becoming. Becoming is very Jewish. Standing still is not. This is both very Jewish in its spirituality and very progressive because it is about infusing our laws with meaning, understanding, and purpose. The laws are not meant to be followed because we are told to follow them. They are meant to be followed because the eternal spirit of the universe has revealed to us the path toward its own divinity. We are to become. We are to become more connected to one another, to ourselves, to the universe – and well – to God.
A story told to help teach this portion relates the following:
“If by chance you are planting a seedling when you hear the Messiah has come, you should finish planting the seedling and then go to meet the Messiah.”
This is about the Jewish concept of never believing that things are complete or finished.
According to another, “I shall never stop looking, I shall never stop breathing. And shall die and will keep going.”
Whether in this passage you read about life continuing through family, through words, or through deeds, the message is clear.
The process is ongoing, and we all play a part. It begins with us, and where it ends, we can only do and then dream of what impact those actions will have long into the future.