This is the week of nightmares and dreams.
They come to us in the form of blessings and curses. The blessings describe plentiful food for all, life without fear and anxiety, peace, comfort and wholeness. They are promised by God; “If you follow My decrees and observe my commandments and perform my commandments…” (Lev. 26:3). The curses include scarcity, paralyzing fear, desolation, loneliness and violence. The chastisements threatened; “If you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments.” (Lev. 26:11)
The curses are harsh, sometimes horrifying. What makes Bechukotai difficult to digest is the observation in the real world that suffering and anguish are very often not the result of poor choices and bad behavior.
The parsha speaks to an irrepressible urge we humans have to believe that we control our circumstances. (For a great read that highlights that point, see Tara Westover’s book, “Educated.”) We see terrible things happen, and we cannot help but construct ways to convince ourselves that we can prevent them from happening to us and to those we love.
On the one hand, it is healthy to believe that our actions matter. When we celebrate the High Holy Days we bring our attention to the influence our spiritual intentions have over our lives. The internal work we do, and the changes we make, can and do make a difference. It is empowering and awe-inspiring to direct our impact toward goodness and blessing.
On the other hand, we can go too far in attributing responsibility. As we know, all kinds of things happen to all kinds of people that are beyond our control and outside the bounds of fairness and justice. Assigning credit and blame indulges our need for control but is one short step away from blaming victims of trauma and tragedy for their own suffering.
I prefer to acknowledge that good and evil are not delivered in just and defensible packages.
I prefer to cast Bechukotai’s blessings and curses as the Torah’s description of the good life and its exact opposite.
Plentiful food for all, life without fear and anxiety, peace, comfort and wholeness — Yes! This is the good life. This is a Jewish spiritual picture of “living the dream.” This is the world we long for.
Scarcity, paralyzing fear, desolation, loneliness, violence — These are the nightmare conditions that haunt us. These are the foes of the human condition.
Bechotai articulates a vision. Not so that we can pull strings and call in divine favors in order to avoid misfortune. Rather, so that we catch a glimpse of a better future. And do our part to make it so.
Even within the curses, which define a miserable and wretched life, we find gems that teach us how to live a better life.
For example, one curse is made up of three simple words in Hebrew — va’achalta ve-lo tishba’u. (Lev. 26:26). “You will eat and not be satisfied.”
Unlike other curses, this one is not based on scarcity. In fact, it assumes plenty. This curse imagines a life in which you have arrayed before you at all times a fine buffet featuring whatever it is that you are in the mood for. You can have it all. You will have it all. And still, you will not be satisfied.
A terrible curse indeed.
Yet, it is one that we can overcome.
It takes work, but we can teach ourselves to feel satisfaction. We can cultivate a sense of deep contentment. Doing so will not solve the problem of evil or offer comfort to those who suffer greatly. But for those of us blessed enough to taste the delights of this world (culinary and otherwise) it may just offer the difference between living in a nightmare and living the dream. JN
Rabbi Chernow is the senior rabbi of Temple Chai.