Understanding the Call to Godliness

Rabbi Dale Schreiber

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

At Sinai, I imagine the Israelites might have felt a compelling need to look up as God was up there above and beyond the clouds. Given such a lofty beginning, it would be understandable to think that Torah was also up there- beyond our comprehension. But here in the Book of Leviticus and most particularly in our portion, we find that God is not speaking from a mountain top, but from a tent. Bechukotai ends the Book of Leviticus which is filled with rules and regulations and admonitions about honoring God and each other. Originally describing the work of the priests of Israel, it now applies to us.

Bechukotai reminds us to look out and watch out for the opportunities and consequences of living in the real world. In the ancient world people thought that their actions had direct effect on what they believed God controlled – natural disasters, devastating illness, individual and communal calamities.

This is reflected at the beginning of Bechukotai which says: If you walk in my statutes, guarding and obligating yourself to my holy mandates, you and the land will live in peace and harmony. Ten verses later Torah says if you trample my covenant and resist the call to holiness, you will suffer, be insatiable, and feel afflicted by great anxieties.

Life would seem more predictable if the pay-out or consequences were a direct result of our actions. We would all get our just desserts, so to speak. But we know that illness is not the result of failing to fulfill God’s commandments. We see that suffering and anxiety are woven into the tapestry of living. Wanting more and feeling less satisfied is the result of existential despair. The length of our life is unknown, but death is a certainty.

In many places Torah tells us, “These are the statutes and judgments” that we must follow in order to be in alignment with God. Here in Bechukotai a new element is added;- ‘these are the statutes, judgments, and ‘torot’ that are the basis of our relationship to God. A statute may be understood as a deeply inscribed set of principles and practices which emulate godliness. Judgments can be realistic principles and practices that contribute to decent living. The ‘torot’, though, are not well understood. The word ‘torot is a plural form of torah. It occurs only once in the entire Pentateuch and it reflects the profound nature of revelation.

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Torah is the comprehensive name for the revealed teachings of Judaism. Torah in the legends and midrash determines the essence and existence of the universe. Without it, there is the risk of returning to a chaos of emptiness. Bechukotai reminds us that there is a way of walking in the world particularly when we are exposed to suffering, and that there are established precedents for maintaining harmonious relationship over generations. Those who stood at Sinai, eyes turned upward and we, looking forward and backwards, as inheritors of its Torot, are part of an evolving experiment in revelation as we continually strive to receive and apply the blueprints of creation for the sake of decency, morality, justice, and hope in our own time.

Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazek.

D’var Torah-Bechukotai

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a rabbinic chaplain with Barnes-Jewish Hospital; she also serves B’nai Torah Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.