Parashat B'har-B'hukkotai

Leviticus 25:1–27:34

May 8, 2010 / 24 Iyyar 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lisa Gelber, associate dean of The Rabbinical School and rabbi of the Women's League Seminary Synagogue, JTS.

For to me B'nai Yisrael are slaves, they are MY slaves, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; I am Adonai Your God. (Lev. 25:55)

As I chanted this verse from the end of Parashat B'har, over and over again, in preparation for reading Torah, it suddenly occurred to me how clear the Torah is about our relationship to God as slaves. Not so many weeks ago, we focused on our enslavement in Egypt. Think back to the Passover seder, where we sang Avadim Hayinu (We Were Slaves). Not to God; rather, l'Pharaoh b'meetzrayeem (to Pharaoh in Egypt). We know the story, and can name the oppressor. So if we were slaves to Pharaoh, and then God took us out of bondage—out of the narrow places, the straits of Egypt—what are we to do with this idea of our enslavement and servitude to God?

It's not surprising that a relationship of this kind—one of slave and master—with anyone, let alone God, seems uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities. Parashat B'hukkotai, among other readings, reminds us of God's power in our narrative: "I am Adonai your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from being their slaves" (Lev. 26:13). Was God merely proving God's might, rescuing us from the bonds of one enslavement to introduce us to another? It's difficult for me to imagine that God merely wants us to do what we're told, shut down our imaginations, and cease questioning; so, to be eved Adonai (a slave or servant of God) must mean something else entirely.

Parashat B'hukkotai begins quite clearly: "Eem b'hukotai teylaychu v'et meetzvotai teeshmoru [If you walk in my laws and guard my commandments]" (Lev. 26:3). Then the Torah goes on to tell us how wonderful everything will be—our fields will flourish, we'll experience peace in the land, we'll multiply as a people, and God will be among us. Great. How do we make this happen? What does it mean to walk in God's laws and watch out for God's commandments? Rashi, the eleventh-century commentator, suggests that although we might presume "eem behukotai teylaychu [if you walk in my laws]" means "if you observe all of my mitzvot," what God really requires is she t'h'yu amaleem baTorah, that you—or we—should immerse ourselves and labor in Torah study. This, in turn, will lead us to learn and understand the mitzvot, v'la'asot, and do them.

Certainly, Torah study and learning in general are significant values in Judaism. Rashi's interpretation emphasizes the critical integration of learning, understanding, and doing. The rabbis of the Talmud speak further about what it means to walk in God's ways. They instruct us to clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the mourners, and bury the dead. These behaviors, expected in our homes and schools, are core values and beliefs about God's world and our place in it.

Our tradition is clear: the way in which we walk in the world makes a difference and brings us closer to God. Reaching out to others, offering support and comfort at times of illness and death, helps us to live out our place as beings created b'tzelem eloheem (in the image of God). Clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, and burying the dead are ways in which we emulate God and lift ourselves up in sanctity and holiness; these acts, and others, help us to build community and bring honor to those in physical and spiritual need. Yet Israel Salanter, the mid-nineteenth-century founder of the Mussar movement, wisely reminds us that knowledge by itself is insufficient; it must also penetrate the heart. This suggests that knowing what to do, and even doing it, is not necessarily enough.

Let's return to the opening words of Parashat B'hukkotai: "Eem behukotai teylaychu." Teylaychu comes from the root holeych, walk, or, more appropriately for this conversation, to journey. Teylaychu has echoes of another journey from our communal narrative, that of Avram, who was told lekh l'kha—go, walk, journey towards the unknown. Just as God promises us in the book of Leviticus that we have the chance to receive blessing, so too did God promise Avram many blessings if he were to move, to go, to journey, to not stay still. But there is a deeper, more complex meaning here than the command to move from one's physical place.

The Kedushat Levi, authored by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, offers that when God tells Avram, "go from the land of your birth, from your father's house, to the place that I will show you," God is teaching a fundamental lesson—"l'chol makom she'adam holeych, hu holeych l'shorsho [wherever you go, you are going to your root source]." "Kee b'vadai b'oto hamakom yesh shorsho, v'tzareech l'ha'alot otan ha-n'tzotzot [Certainly in that place is your root source, and you need to bring up the sparks related to your core]." Kedushat Levi suggests that our journey toward God is really an inward journey, one that challenges us to pull away the coverings that we so carefully place upon our hearts. So lekh l'kha is really a charge, demanding "go forth": "l'vadcha l'shorshcha l'ha'alot otan ha-n'tzotzot [go forth, on your own, to your source, and raise up those sparks]," the blessings that belong uniquely to you.

When we view our parashah through this lens, we understand more fully the integration of the intellectual and the spiritual journey. God invites us into the mitzvot as a means of traveling along a path as individuals and as a community. When we truly engage in the deepest essence of this path, God tells us, "v'natatee meeshkanee b'toch'chem [I will establish My dwelling place in your midst]" . . . "v'heethalachtee b'toch'chem, v'hayeetee lachem layloheem, v'atem t'h'yu lee l'am [I will walk in your midst; I will be your God, and you shall be my people]" (Lev. 26:11-12).

This, I believe, is what it means to be eved Adonai. When we engage in the world not only for our own sake, or even for the sake of others, but also with appreciation and humility for our relationship with God, we walk the tender line between free will and lack of control; in doing so, we uncover a piece of who we are and add that to the blessings of our world. In Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion, Tilden Edwards writes, "Spiritual practice is not then about finding God somewhere else. It's about realizing the Divine Presence in and around us all the time, praying for the empowerment to freely embrace that Presence as the very heart of our true soul-identity, and living out its movements" (77). Many of us see acts of hesed (loving-kindness) and tikkun 'olam (repairing the world) as expressions of God's grace—opportunities for us to enact God's work. God may also move within us. God is embedded in our neshama t'horah (pure soul), an intrinsic part of who and how we are that may be engaged in our daily existence. The potential for this interaction takes place, in part, by learning our language of connection with God (traditional liturgy is merely one example of that language) and opening ourselves to the possibility of our soul's connecting with God in traditional and less traditionally obvious modes of experience.

From this place, avodat hashem is hardly enslavement but rather like the image presented in our haftarah: "V'hayah k'eytz shatul al mayeem, v'al yuval y'shalach shorashav [He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream] (Jer. 17:8). When we can hand ourselves over to God, we have the potential for nourishment in body and soul; like a tree planted by water—the right amount of water—we will grow, stretching up from our roots into canopies of shade and blossoms.

I have come to believe that hope is the courage to open our hearts to what is yet to be, and faith is the trust that God may be with us on our journey. May we each have the clarity and strength to work and walk towards God, inviting the divine into our presence.

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.