Bechukotai: A note to self-proclaimed ‘bad Jews’
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Bechukotai: A note to self-proclaimed ‘bad Jews’

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

I often hear, “I am a bad Jew, rabbi.”

What does this mean?

It usually means, “I’m sorry that I don’t come to shul more often” or “Please forgive me that I ate something not kosher” or “I don’t volunteer for the synagogue as much as I should.”

Essentially, I feel like it is a form of self-judgment or a declaration of embarrassment. Some may call it “Jewish guilt.” In either case, how should I respond to these self-proclaimed “bad Jews”?

We begin this week’s parasha, Bechukotai, with the following verse: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will give your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit” (Leviticus 26:3).

I’ve always found this passage difficult to read. Why? Because it essentially says “do good, and good will come to you” and then — later in the parasha — “do bad, and bad will come to you.”

But we all know life does not always work out that way.

We all know people who are faithful to God’s commandments and yet, tragic things happen to them. On the flip side, we also know people who do not follow the commandments or we know people who are unethical and yet, somehow, things just easily fall into their lap. This challenge of theodicy (“why bad things happen to good people”) is one of life’s essential questions for which we really have no answers. But, dare I say, should that change how we live our lives?

Regarding the verse above, rabbis have long asked why we need two phrases that essentially say the same thing. In other words, not only does this verse say, “if you follow my laws,” but it also says “if you faithfully observe my commandments.” Are both necessary? Isn’t that redundant?

According to various commentators, both phrases are needed because one phrase represents Torah study and the other represents observing the mitzvot. Torah study and observing the mitzvot — according to this verse — combine to bring goodness into this world. Alternatively, one can look at these two mitzvot sequentially and argue that Torah study leads to action.

But I have a different explanation.

The second phrase, “if you faithfully observe My commandments,” uses the Hebrew words “mitzvot” (commandments) and “lishmor” (“to observe”). This outlines an obligation to follow the commandments, such as observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, or praying. When someone says to me, “Rabbi, I am a bad Jew,” these are the ritual commandments they are skipping. Some would call these mitzvot “ben adam la’Makom,” commandments that are between an individual and God.

In contrast, the first phrase “if you will follow my laws” uses the Hebrew root for “la’lachet” or to “go,” or “walk.” This is the same root that comprises the word “halacha,” Jewish law, as it teaches us how to walk, live, eat and breathe in a sacred way in the world around us. I believe that this phrase represents how we lead our daily lives outside of the ritual mitzvot: how we treat the cashier in the grocery store or a waiter in a restaurant or how we speak to our family members behind closed doors. Some would call these mitzvot “ben adam la’chavero,” commandments that are between an individual and other people. But I believe this category also includes how we make ethical decisions when no one is watching us or how we take the high-road — even when it involves a great sacrifice or risk.

Why are both phrases necessary?

Because there are the ritual mitzvot and then there is everything else.

We can keep Shabbat and study Torah and daven every single day. We can light holiday candles and keep a kosher home and observe the laws of modesty, but that is only one part of the Jewish equation. The other part involves being a “God-fearing,” ethical person, treating others with respect, doing the right thing, living the “off-hours” with honor and sanctity.

Some of us could do better at keeping specific ritual mitzvot.

And some of us could build more sanctity into our daily interactions and whereabouts.

I don’t judge you or think you are a “bad Jew” if you are not following the ritual commandments. And — I don’t judge you if you lose your cool with your kids or act unwisely out of stress or speak out of turn.

So to those of you who feel like “bad Jews,” please remember:

Halacha is not limited to ritual matters. Halacha, Jewish law, is also how we live our lives in the “in-between.” The Torah teaches us that both forms of holiness combine to bring goodness into the world.

Perhaps when the Torah says our observance of the commandments will provide us with rich crops and fruits or produce, what it really means is “live your life with goodness as if your life depended on it.” So while our actions might not be able to reverse the course of a terminal illness or prevent a natural disaster, we can at least celebrate the various ways we can live as “good Jews” in our daily pursuit of holiness.

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