One afternoon, while playing outside with some friends, my grandfather-in-law of blessed memory, Samuel Spitzer, accidentally kicked a soccer ball through a neighbor’s window, shattering the glass. The neighbor came out screaming, “Spitzer! Hashem will punish you for this!” A political prisoner, Holocaust survivor, and concentration camp escapee who fled to the mountains to join the Partisans, Sam would often reflect on this moment from his childhood. He was upset that he was made to be fearful of God, and scared of God taking on the role of punisher.
Fear and punishment are at the core of this week’s Torah portion, Bechukkotai. The concluding parasha in the book of Leviticus promises peace, victory over one’s enemies, favor and abundance granted by God, simply for following the laws and commandments that have been given to the people. But if the Israelites “do not obey [God] and do not observe all these commandments…” well, that’s another story entirely. Leviticus 26 promises (among other punishments) sudden terror, vicious diseases, and a destroyed land should the Israelites disobey the commandments.
There is enough material in just this one chapter of Leviticus to scare a person into submission. When I was a rabbi in Sydney, Australia, and either Bechukkotai (or its partner in Deuteronomy Ki Tavo) was due to be read, my colleague, Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio, and I would accept the aliyah to the Torah so that no congregant would be subject to having these horrific punishments read for him or her. Without fail, Rabbi Ninio and I would turn to one another when the passage was over, and we would say, “Okay, we’ll follow God.” When our text paints our “choice” in such bleak, black-and-white terms, what “choice” do we actually have?
Some of my fellow Jews would undoubtedly argue that our pursuit of religious identity has nothing to do with our personal choices. It is an obligation to fear God, plain and simple, and to follow God’s commandments. In our covenantal relationship, we can only be responsible for what we do, and how we observe the laws of our tradition, and even then, we have no control over what God may do to us for our actions (or lack thereof). If we observe the laws and commandments, then we must also have faith that God will uphold God’s side of the bargain.
But what about for those of us who aren’t there yet? What about those of us for whom this text makes us feel like a child who has kicked a soccer ball through a neighbor’s window and leaves us upset, fearful and scared of God taking on the role of punisher? We are doubters, questioners, wrestlers, people who have seen bad things happen to good people (people we love) one too many times, that we find it difficult to keep on trusting God with what we perceive as blind faith. And there are plenty of us out there.
Yet every relationship needs boundaries, and the concept of boundaries is perhaps a redeeming element in what remains an otherwise frightening text. In the 1978 machzor of the Reform movement, Gates of Repentance, we read, “We call you Avinu — as a loving Parent, forgive our wrongs and failings; accept us in our human frailty. We call you Malkeinu — as Sovereign of our souls, help us rise from our brokenness to build a world of shalom.”
This connection to God as a parent-figure is at once comforting and deeply appropriate. As parents, how many consecutive days do we succeed without yelling at our children, getting upset or frustrated with their actions? As Mo Willems suggests with his bestselling children’s book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” we cannot, we must not, leave our children to set the rules; we as parents need to create appropriate boundaries. We do not allow our children to exist in a world of infinite choices — there are consequences for every action, and in some way, the harsh language in Parashat Bechukkotai reminds us of the boundaries of religion — that God is in charge, whether we like it or not.
The harsh language of our parashah is destined to push many away. It does not provide a satisfying answer into theological inquests. And yet the text, reflected through the lens of parenting, still has significant staying power. Like parents to our children, God wants us to make good, moral choices, where, in the words of Micah, we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (6:8). At the end of the day, the boundaries of our tradition which create for us a life of justice, righteousness and moral behavior, are not be feared, but are there to benefit us. Afraid or not, engaging with the notion that God wants us to be our very best is not a choice — it is our duty.