Bechukotai: An upright stance
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D'VAR TORAH

Bechukotai: An upright stance

Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, Conservative

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Bechukotai, includes one of the two versions of the Tochecha, a series of verses in the Torah (the other one is in Deuteronomy) that describe the horrible impact that not following God’s commands will have on the people of Israel. The overall goal of the Tochecha is to scare the people of Israel into observing the mitzvot, or to at least clarify what will happen to them if they don’t observe them. When you read the verses in detail, you see that they are truly terrifying. The regular minhag (custom) is to read these verses quickly and in a low tone, so as a community we can rush through them and not bring them, at least partially, into existence by saying them in a full voice.

In the series of verses before the Tochecha, we read about the blessings that will happen to Israel if they obey God’s commands. Peace, tranquility, and more will be in our hands if we simply do what God commands. This section of the Torah ends with the following verse, “I the Lord am your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect (Lev. 26:13).” The word for ‘erect’ is kom’miut, an unusual and ambiguous word (as my teacher, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, head of school at Golda Och Academy, noted in a JTS d’var torah a few years ago).

Rashi defines the word in his commentary by explaining that it means “standing straight,” but can the meaning actually be as clear as Rashi seems to imply? After all, we learn in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 43b) that ‘standing erect’ (using the exact same words that Rashi used hundreds of years later in his commentary) was one of the behaviors that Jews should avoid. So which is it? Should we stand straight as Leviticus teaches or avoid standing straight as the Talmud teaches?

What we have in the word kom’miut  is a quality that is extremely important for us to aspire to, as long as we have the right intention when we do it. This Hebrew word can imply taking responsibility for our actions and being independent, but it can also be seen as a sign of insolence and a lack of necessary humility.

In the Ahavah Rabah paragraph of the morning service (the paragraph that immediately precedes the Shema) we read these words, “Bring us back in peace from the four corners of the earth and lead us upright to our land.” Movement, agency, being in control of our destiny — these are all implied with the word kom’miut. In our day, one cannot hear the word kom’miut without thinking of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, whose third word is “kam,” as in “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.” The English word “birthplace” is not an exact translation of the Hebrew. A more exact translation would be “In the Land of Israel the Jewish people established themselves.”

In other words, kom’miut in our day (as the Even-Shoshan dictionary states clearly) is not only about an individual person standing straight and needing to balance the pride of being made in God’s image with the hubris that we should try to avoid. In our day, an entire nation has taken the opportunity to stand on its own two feet, to be independent and to establish for itself a new reality, a reality that understands Jewish history but that turns on its head the helplessness that plagued us for centuries of exile.

Perhaps all of this is implied in that original verse from Leviticus 26. To be free, to walk upright as human beings with agency over themselves, that was God’s original intent for the people of Israel. And that is the last idea we read before we hear the curses of the Tochecha, curses that describe what will happen to the people of Israel when we do not act in such a manner, when we are so bent over out of shame and humiliation, that we forget not only who we are, but in whose image we are made. I pray that we all do our part to stand upright in a manner that is befitting the Jewish people, that retains a sense of humility and that celebrates the freedom and independence we were always meant to enjoy.

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