Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts | Associate Lecturer, Dept of Music, Newcastle University, UK
Bechukotai. It begins quite nicely, doesn’t it, lots of ‘blessed be, but it sure doesn’t end nicely. Every blessing is countered in the next section, turned into its evil opposite, the curse.
If you have ever been to a traditional shul during shabbos bechukotai, you would have noted that there is great reluctance to accept an aliyah. When that is sorted, the Torah reader, chants the tochechot, the curses, quickly, sotto voce, to finish this part of the parashah. S/He does this so as not to imply Gods and thus disturb their equanimity on the day of rest, and not, chas v’chalilah, to imply that the curses are coming upon the community because of the one who had the aliyah.
We are lucky here in the Reform movement. We can just skip that part and pretend that it does not exist. Most of the time, we don’t do that – and most of the time, I approve. I believe that we should not skip the uncomfortable, unpalatable, squirmy, archaic bits of Torah. We need to be able to claim all of these pieces of our own tradition, and, not necessarily to agree with them, but to make them transparent and then to amend, criticise, acknowledge or incorporate them. But we should not just pretend that they do not exist.
Whereas I reject the cause and effect sort of theology that is exemplified in the parashah, and like many of you, reconceive the passages in the context of our modern world, in which we have truly brought down curses upon our heads through our activities, in the light of the virus which has brought the world to ruin, it is hard not to look at these passages as prophecy. We have broken our world, and it has indeed given us “desolate lands and ruined cities.” There are consequences to our actions, and we are reaping them now.
What can we learn from all of this anger? Can we take this opportunity to shift the world towards the light, towards policies and ways of being that enhance life, or will we hurriedly return to disastrous, life-threatening paths? Will we realise that we were sent to be a blessing in this, our beautiful world, and that we can choose to be either part of the process that continues with actions that bring more curse onto the planet, or the one that works towards more blessing, in our world.
I remain in trepidation, because, whilst I hope for the one, I fear it will be the other. We stand before the Deuteronomic choice of blessing or curse, life or death. We’re not choosing well yet. Can we?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).