This week’s reading from the Torah, Parashat Behukotai, is the final reading from the book of Leviticus. It contains an interesting tension. In Leviticus 26:3, the opening verse of our parashah, we read, “If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them.” The text continues to explain numerous ways in which the people will be blessed including nourishing rains, peace in the land, and sufficient food. For the time being, all seems well and good.
However, just a few verses later the text knocks the wind right out of us. In Leviticus 26:14 we read, “But if you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments.” This parashah is one of two places in the Torah (the other being Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy) where the Israelites are given tochecha – a very strong rebuke, an admonition of the terrible things that will befall them if they fail to live in accordance with Jewish law. For failing to live within the boundaries established by the commandments, the people learn that they will be subjugated by their enemies, punished mercilessly, and find their cities ravaged and in ruins.
There is a striking discrepancy between these two verses, a division that hinges upon the word “all.” If a person should follow the decrees and commandments and perform them, they will be blessed. However, if a person will not listen and will not perform all of these commandments, then they will be surely cursed. So, which one is it? Does God simply want us to follow “the decrees and commandments,” or does God want us to perform “all” of these commandments and is taking scrupulous notes when we transgress? Is Jewish tradition so black-and-white as to suggest an “all-or-nothing” approach to Jewish life?
The 13th century text Sefer Ha-Chinuch, a work that provides an analysis of the 613 commandments according to the order of the weekly parashiot, offers us some additional perspective. Nestled within the fifty-three commandments found in Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24) is the commandment to celebrate on the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The author writes:
“Even if [a person should] have a vile, offensive occupation… they cleanse their bodies and their clothing, and go up into the presence of the Eternal Lord (be He blessed), and they are as acceptable before God as the other Israelites. For the foulness of spirit is what makes human beings abhorrent before the omnipresent God, and not the occupation, as long as they work at it in honesty.”
This text presents a gentle, supportive, and loving approach with regards to observance of a particular Jewish practice. Would that it were this easy in our contemporary world. Instead, we see a tendency to impose additional strictures on ourselves and upon others, to try to enforce systems that are black-and-white, inflexible, rigid, and uncompromising.
Many of us live colorful lives and we exist somewhere on the spectrum in the gray matter – the area between black-and-white. All-or-nothing doctrine simply doesn’t speak to us. More than asking, “Does God want us to follow all the commandments?” there are many of us who need to hear the voice that asks, “Have you tried your best?” “Have you conducted yourself honestly in the presence of others and in My presence?”
The idea that simply by bathing, wearing fresh clothing, and making the effort to undertake and participate in a lengthy journey (in the case of this mitzvah of pilgrimage to Jerusalem), each of us could be regarded as equal to one another in the sight of God, and all the more so, equal in one another’s eyes too, would bring refreshing change to the way of the religious world and perhaps to the world in general. Our challenge is to focus on the bigger picture, rather than sweating the small stuff and trying to achieve “all” of Jewish tradition. Simply beginning the journey of Jewish observance is enough challenge for a lifetime. And if we could begin or engage in this journey by seeing one another as equals, equals who are striving, trying to do our very best, and living honestly, rather than acting with “foulness of spirit” and engaging in judgment, our world would be a far better place.