What a trying period we are passing through! The COVID pandemic has sickened and killed millions ‘round the world, provoking isolation and fear in communities just when we need one another’s concern and encouragement the most. Antisemitism and other forms of bigotry are on the rise, and terrorism even in nations unaccustomed to it. We pray, as always, for peace, but an unprovoked war in the Ukraine drags on, producing a severe refugee crisis and serious economic fallout even for nations thousands of miles away. We could go on like this, reviewing environmental threats and deeply rooted political tensions on every continent. Even within free societies politics seems to grow ever nastier and more divisive. Well might we, like the Psalmist, lift our eyes to the hills and wonder: from whence shall our help come? (Psalm 121:1)
Then we come to parashat Bechukotai. It begins in Leviticus 26:3 full of hope. If we will but follow God’s commandments the rains will come in their season, and abundant harvests almost beyond imagining! Better yet, God promises: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land” (26:6). The promises go on for another five verses: victory, prosperity, fertility! God will be ever-present among us!
Aware as we are of the world’s agonies, we must surely nod our heads in agreement with the commentary of Rashi from 11th century France: “After vv. 3-5 you might have thought, ‘Now I have food and drink, but without peace I have nothing.’ But I will grant you peace, too. –We learn from this that peace is as valuable as everything else put together. That is why God is called, ‘maker of peace and creator of all things.’ (Michael Carasik translation from The Rubin JPS Mikra’ot Gedolot, Leviticus. Philadelphia: 2009, pp. 218-219)”.
OK, God, we are waiting! And waiting. And waiting some more. We must acknowledge, of course, that the chapter goes on with a list of curses to curdle our blood if we fail to faithfully observe all God’s ways or turn to false gods: disease, defeat, draught, exile, and famine so awful that “you shall eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters” (26:29). All these centuries later peace and plenty remain a distant dream. Are we, then, evil, or at least not good enough?
But wait! We Jews cannot be responsible all by ourselves for the fate of the whole world. Not that Israel, and local Jewish communities everywhere, do not have our troubles. But the pandemic is world-wide, and though we have a bit of political clout here and there, neither Russia nor the Ukraine are taking their marching orders from world Jewry. So now what? We are surely not as sinful as the bulk of the chapter warns against—nor as good as the opening verses of Bechukotai command. Are we, then, and is the world, hopeless?
To the contrary, we have passed along mitzvot and ideals, values that remain vital parts of the foundation of civilization. Rabbis and modern biblical scholars long since recognized that Torah offers visions of what the world could become, not guarantees to take literally. “OK, God, we are waiting!” is a dead end. Jews are our special responsibility as a covenant people, yet until humankind progresses together we will all continue to face the sort of malaise we face today. In other words, we should be motivated by our messianic dream of a world redeemed. Then we must work towards that end.
We Jews alone cannot guarantee the rains in their season, end the pandemic, or change the human soul to eliminate greed and lust for power. After all we have endured over the ages we know that things often do get better (imagine human life without inoculations and all the rest of modern medicine!), and can, ominously, become catastrophically worse (remember the Sho’ah; consider the threat of nuclear conflagration; contemplate the dangers of global warming). All this is the contemporary equivalent of Leviticus 26’s imagined blessings and curses. We dare not wait for God, but must rally one another and ally ourselves with others who worship a God of justice, love, cooperation, beauty, truth, and compassion—divine intangibles, as I like to call them, which have the potential to bring closer the era of peace of which we dream. They are part of the fabric of existence no less than are energy, matter, gravity and all the more measurable facets of God’s universe.
This is an eternal struggle, which is to say there need never be a final, perfect messianic world. That is poetry, myth, the goal which gives purpose to the struggle and meaning to life. We can sense this when we join with one another, and the human family, in tikkun olam, “perfecting the world.” God does not do that for us, but we can only do it because that divine realm of meaning is there to reach for.