With Pesach the rain in Israel generally ends. But this past week we had quite a storm! The Hebrew language has multiple words for rain. Geshem is the most general word. Yoreh refers to the early rain. And malkosh the late rain. This week’s Torah portion, Behukotai, is one of many traditional Jewish sources that views rain as a reward to the Jewish people for obeying the commandments:
“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4)
Rain is not the only reward our text sites in exchange for obeying the mitzvot. God also promises to grant peace, spurn enemies, bless us with fertility, and much more. But, there’s a “but.”
“But if you do not obey me…I will wreak misery upon you with consumption and fever… you shall be routed by your enemies, I will discipline you sevenfold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory.” (Leviticus 26:14-19) And, of course, no rain.
You do not have to be a great scholar to see that the world around us does not generally conform to this concept of divine reward and punishment. We can all point to examples of people who make the world a better place dying young, and people who bring evil to the world prospering.
There is a famous story of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, a great scholar and member of the Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court). Abuya sees a father tell his son to climb a tree and get some eggs. The boy obeys his father, and also chases away the mother bird before gathering the eggs. Honoring parents – and chasing away the mother bird – are both commandments, which Torah teaches, come with a reward: the promise of a long life. Nevertheless, the boy falls to his death. Elisha ben Abuya then proclaims: “there is not justice and no Judge” – leaves the Sanhedrin and leaves Judaism.
I have found a different answer than Abuya. I have come to understand these texts as reminders that our actions have consequences. Not necessarily divine reward and punishment; rather a real-world impact on others and the world. How we address environmental, social, and political issues makes a difference.
This doesn’t mean I find no value in observing the commandments. I believe the Judaism and mitzvot are a meaningful way of making community and bringing goodness into the world. Many of our mitzvah require us to connect to community. I find holiness – Godliness – in being part of a community. Our reward is being part of community. When we come together to support one another in times of need, we bring goodness into the world. When we come together in song a prayer, we bring harmony and holiness into the world.
Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan wrote: “The purpose of Jewish existence is to be a People in the image of God… to awaken a sense of moral responsibility in action.” Visiting the sick, welcoming the stranger, being kind to animals, feeding the hungry and making peace are our rewards. When we act on these values, we bring God into the world and allow the sparks of holiness to shine – even on a rainy night.
About the author:
Rabbi Steve Burnstein is the Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Education of the World Union.