Thursday, May 26, 2005

Parashat Bechuqotai - The Little Torah

In non-leap years, this parasha is read together with the preceding one - Behar. Together, these parshiyot are referred to by Chazal as "the Little Torah". Behar opens at 25:1 with: "And G-d spoke to Moshe ON MOUNT SINAI...", while this week's parasha ends, at 27:34 (also the end of Sefer Vayikra - the Book of Leviticus) with: "These are the mitzvot that G-d commanded Moshe to Bnei Israel ON MOUNT SINAI." Thus, the words "behar sinai" - "on Mt. Sinai" bracket the content of these two parshiyot. This is a literary device we have seen elsewhere in the text of Torah - most notably, perhaps, in the long night of Ya'akov's exile, where the two decades-plus he spends in Haran are bracketed by a sunset and a sunrise. As in that instance, the literary device serves to draw our attention to the portion of text that is set apart by its end-stops.

Nechama Leibovitz breaks the Little Torah down into chapter and section topics, more or less as follows:


* and the Land shall keep a sabbath
* and it shall be a year of Yovel (the Jubilee)
* and you shall declare FREEDOM
* and you shall return every owner's possessions
* you shall not wrong one another
* if your brother becomes poor with you


* the Blessings
* cumulative effect of the Many who practice Torah together
* the Tochachah - "And I will bring the Land to desolation"
* they will confess their sins / iniquity
* and yet... [G-d's ultimate comfort to 'Am Israel - not to each of us individually, but insofar as we adhere to the People of Israel, as we constantly maintain a Jewish identity.]

Another example of the literary device of bracketing is the section within the parshiyot - the Tochachah / Rebuke, which begins at 26:16, opens with the words "Af ani..." Meaning "Also I" or "Then will I also". This section is brought to a close by words of conciliation. At 26:44, after having poured out a dollop of prospective wrath, G-d states: "Ve'Af gam zot, behiyotam be'eretz oiveyhem..." "But notwithstanding all this, while they are in the land of their enemies..." The word "'Af" [aleph, peh] brackets the Tochachah, on the one hand raising it yet higher above the "Little Torah" which is, itself, singled out within the text. The other effect of this bracketing is to sequester the wrath of G-d, in effect to offer us a means of protection. The double use of the word "'Af" builds a wall - or perhaps a pair of gates, showing us both the way in to G-d's wrath, but also holding out the promise that we will ultimately exit.

And of course, to ice the matzoh, as it were, the Hebrew word "'Af" (same spelling) also means "Wrath". There are no coincidences in Torah.

In the Spain of the Inquisition, many of the great Jewish commentators were driven to focus on the seeming lack of spirituality in these two parshiyot. It's almost exclusively about mundane matters of agrarian husbandry and social welfare. Matters, one might argue, where we do not require divine law to instruct us. Nechama Leibovitz quotes the Albo, the Arama, and the Abarbanel - all mediaeval Spanish Hachamim - as asking why the Little Torah speaks about the physical and says virtually nothing about the spiritual benefits of observance.

This was presumably prompted by the attacks of the Catholic Church who rushed to point out that the Jewish G-d really is only focusing on mundane matters, and that the Jewish religion - ergo - only deals with base and profane issues, and can not rise to the sacred or the holy.

Two hundred and fifty years earlier, the RamBaN made a radical observation on exactly this point. His observation dovetails nicely with the notion expressed, for example, in the Chassidic writings, of the definition of the mitzvah to Believe In G-d. The RamBaN writes that immortality and eternal companionship with G-d is the natural and permanent state of the soul. Almost as if to say that it is truly only in this world that the soul can forget itself, that the soul finds itself in a garment which is itself prone to suffering. The Torah comes, not to teach us to forget this world, but to show us how to thrive while we are here, for this is the critical schooling the soul must receive. There is a deep debate in Judaism as to whether, similar to most elementary schools in this country, the soul is able to repeat coursework in subjects it flunked. Without going too far afield, it is quite clear that there is a profound historical Jewish belief in reincarnation. Like the idea of Mashiach, 'Olam HaBa and the Third Beit Ha Miqdash, reincarnation is an idea not found in the written Torah. Also like these other concepts, it is hinted at in the later writings - NaCh - but the working-out of the notion in a Jewish way, and as a concept that is seen as indigenous to Judaism, was left to the Rabbis. For some reason I do not fully understand, the notion of reincarnation is much more current among Sefardim than Ashkenazim. The Sefardic Yom Kippur machzor, for example, among the list of "Al Cheit - " ["For the sins committed...'] makes two references to reincarnation. "For sins I have committed whether in this incarnation or in other incarnations", and "For sins for which the punishment is to be reincarnated as a lower life form..." That's pretty specific.

I am confused by this, because Ashkenazim - at least those who are somewhat influenced by Chassidus - embrace other borderline-magical notions, such as Mashiach. Tune in around Rosh HaShana for a more wide-ranging discussion of notions of Mashiach and Reincarnation, as they apply to Teshuvah and the Yomim Noraim.

For now, let us return to the notion that, as far as our soul's outer garment is concerned, this world is all we have. Thus, when the Torah - the "Little Torah" - focuses our attention on the here and the now, on doing right by one another for the good of the perpetual existence of Jewish society, it is saying perhaps the most profound thing that a human can grasp. There is no human frame of reference for 'Olam HaBa, which is why the Torah does not speak about it. When it became an emotional need for a huge segment of the population, the Rabbis permitted it - indeed, some seem to have embraced it, although we do not know at this remove whether Rabbi Akiva's support for Bar Kochba was political, or whether Rabbi Akiva himself believed in the notion of Mashiach as a quasi-super hero sent from Shamayim. As with much that has become mainstream for us Jews today, it is often difficult to tease out contemporaneous facts of the time before the Mishna from the revisionism of two intervening millennia.

One thing, though, is certain, and is emphasized in this week's parsha. There is a concept that lies at the heart of our lives as Jews that says: "kol Israel 'arevim ze el ze." "All Israel are guarantors for one another." Those of us who are learning Masechet Shabbat in the Daf Yomi cycle have already seen instances of acts that are prohibited for one person to do alone, but become permitted when they are done in a group. This is because the Rabbis assume that, in a group, people will remind one another of what is the proper Halacha, and transgressions will be avoided. In other words: Chazal have great faith in the human propensity to Do The Right Thing. People fundamentally want to be good. They merely need to be reminded, not because we are fundamentally bad, but because we are fundamentally weak. Some call this Yetzer HaRa, some call it loss of focus. The effect of ten Jewish families coming together to make a minyan on shabbat, to make a small community within a community by having all family members together in Shul, observing shabbat as one, is greater than the effect of one hundred Jewish families, each observing shabbat alone in its own home.

One of the most compelling reasons for the prohibition against driving on shabbat, for example, is to ensure that all Jews live, not merely within walking distance of the place of worship, but - by coincidental, though clearly intended effect - within walking distance of one another. Jews are city dwellers, of necessity. A group of fifty homes clustered around a shul is a town. Many who have lived in the kind of environment find it stultifying. There are many Jews who are a trifle too eager to point out to us when we might be in danger of transgressing a commandment of Torah. When the commandment is a prohibition against me serving cheeseburgers on shabbat to a house full of neighbors, I am fully in support of it. But when the "prohibition" is that my wife can not drive a car, or my daughters can not learn Torah or put on Tefillin, than I too have a problem.

The "Little Torah" focuses on the Here and Now. That, in itself, is a tremendous amount to deal with. Do you also require that we speak of the Hereafter? But the Torah says: our Garment of humanity can not comprehend the Hereafter; while our inner Soul - see RamBaN - knows nothing else. There is an inherent conflict in being human, not to speak of being Jewish.

Being Jewish is a constant struggle. If we approach it honestly, it is a constant struggle within our own heart and mind and soul to understand and to come to terms with the inner meaning of Torah, to live as consistently as we can by the requirements of Halacha, to contribute as fully as we can to our own immediate community, and to the world at large. To acknowledge the inherent inconsistencies - call them contradictions if you like; call them the hypocrisy that is innate to being human - that are part of our lives at any moment. By contrast, rejecting Halacha or Torah notions, merely because we are uncomfortable with them, not only damages Torah and Judaism - it damages the Jewish community; it damages ourselves.

No one ever said it was going to be easy.


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