Social Imperatives Flow From Ideas of Justice Found in Double Portion

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By Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

This week’s parshah is a big double-dipper, Behar-Bechukotai — it means, “On the mountaintop” and “My directives” — and brings the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, to a close.

Behar opens us to a visionary and aspirational balance of the planet and people — what Rabbi Arthur Waskow and others have called a Torah ecology. It begins with the idea of a whole year off for the Earth — a sabbatical or shemita year. Then every 50 years a jubilee, a yovel, marks the return of all property back to its original residents. (Wouldn’t it be interesting if we honored this for the First Nations in whose land we reside now?) The yovel prevents permanent poverty for those who had misfortune and lost their land along the way.

There are also other humane laws of economic justice, including a prohibition of charging interest on loans, and an opportunity for those who had sold themselves to be indentured servants to buy their freedom back.

If Jewish life will endure and thrive in the larger life of the planet, then our tradition’s assertion that we separate ourselves from the cycles of the Earth at our peril (echoing the second paragraph of the Shema) looms large.

Whether on a local level, as we are doing this coming year at Mishkan Shalom as part of the Hazon Seal of Sustainability Program, or organizing nationally and globally for the preservation of the air, land, earth and water that is our very existence, to live out our Torah-based Jewish values is to engage on all levels of environmental health and economic justice.

As the double parshah shifts to Bechukotai, it is easy to experience this portion of the Torah as a harsh assessment of human nature, the Source of Life discharging expected disappointment, perhaps scaring our ancestors into the right path or our own people laying the groundwork for exile consciousness. We are told that if we keep the commandments, we will enjoy material prosperity and dwell securely. But we also receive a harsh “rebuke,” warning of the exile, persecution and other evils that will befall us if we abandon divine direction.

Yet we know that life does not always reward good behavior nor is evil always condemned. Our ability to heal and hurt, commit and flee, follow and rebel is a challenge to the divine cosmic constant.

To stay in relationship and maintain connection with hopefulness and forgiveness, we need to also make space for healthy anger and acknowledging fear.

How will we operate in the world, given our own inconsistencies and moments of excelling in compassion and acts of caring and equity, as well as when we lose our center and act out of old narratives, prejudice, fear and insecurity?

In Leviticus 26:41, our hearts are finally humbled. An ancient Midrash catalogued the wide range of additional capabilities of the heart reported in the Hebrew Bible (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:36):

“The heart speaks, sees, hears, walks, falls, stands, rejoices, cries, is comforted, is troubled, becomes hardened, grows faint, grieves, fears, can be broken, becomes proud, rebels, invents, cavils, overflows, devises, desires, goes astray, lusts, is refreshed, can be stolen, is enticed, errs, trembles, is awakened, loves, hates, envies, is searched, is rent, meditates, is like a fire, is like a stone, turns in repentance, becomes hot, dies, melts, takes in words, is susceptible to fear, gives thanks, covets, becomes hard, makes merry, acts deceitfully, speaks from out of itself, loves bribes, writes words, plans, receives commandments, acts with pride, makes arrangements, and aggrandizes itself.”

There will be alignment and harmony, disquiet and shattering. Living a spiritual life in a Jewish or any context does not guarantee outcomes and is often a matter of the heart.

Parallel to the many themes of justice, fairness, equity and compensation in Bechukotai are issues we deal with today. To do the work of tikkun (balance and repair) in our world means dealing with setbacks and progress, misunderstandings and breakthroughs.

We live in a city with such abundance, and yet we are the leader in poverty among big American cities and with an unemployment and food insecurity rate, especially for people of color, greater than some countries in the world.

Many of us who are multifaith member congregations of POWER, or involved in the upcoming March on Harrisburg, are committed to ending political gerrymandering and corruption, the fight for a living wage, full fair funding for our children’s education, dismantling the prison system that supports mass incarceration predominantly of African-Americans in our country and ending racial injustice. As in the parshah, countering and adapting to climate change and honoring our interdependence with the Earth we are blessed to live on features prominently in our shared work as well.

Our Torah chronicles the challenging journey of life, made more perilous in the environment and leadership choices of our time. Claiming the path of love, hope and justice — even as we continue to wrestle in the light of the laws and truths of our time is at the heart of our shared sacred journey. As is our custom when we end a Book of Torah — chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik — let us be strong and strengthen each other.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit is the lead rabbi for Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and a consultant, teacher, author, spiritual director, musician and community organizer. He is the co-director of the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.