The yearly Torah-reading cycle is a beautiful thing. Every week, when I look at the parashah for the upcoming Shabbat, I see something I hadn’t noticed before. I also the same words year-after-year, but find different understandings of them, depending on what’s going in the world, the area, my life.
Bekhukotai begins, Eem bechukotai tay-laykhu v’et mitzvotai, teesh-moru… “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.” A few verses later? “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you…”
Normally, when I encounter the reward-punishment verses here and elsewhere in Torah, I explain them as natural and logical consequences; if we treat the land properly, things will grow. If we continue to pollute the water and air, we open ourselves up for environmental disaster.
This year, however, these opening verses hit me right in the gut. My teacher, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, has said “the God of the bible isn’t the God I pray to,” and I’ve taken that to heart. This year, however, I heard Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Richard Agler speak about their new book, A God We Can Believe In, on Rabbi Richard Address’ Jewish Sacred Aging podcast, and almost immediately bought the book (and invited them to speak!).
The God of Bekhukotai and other similar Torah readings is a God we might have learned about in Hebrew school; a parental figure that’s in control of the world and watches everything we do. A punishing God when “we’re bad” and one who rewards us for good behavior. As soon as something happens to challenge that; when something bad happens to a good person, or vice versa, our relationship with the Divine falls to pieces. Our faith is shaken and as the rabbis noted, “we close our accounts with Judaism.”
Studies have long shown that connection to a faith community and regular attendance at worship influence longevity, and even in teens, a strong inner spirituality has been shown to protect against depression. But when we hold onto a childhood idea of God, or imagine God as a mythical being that controls nature and watches our every move, one that we pray to expecting an answer (of course in the affirmative), we miss out on the opportunity to enter into relationship with YHVH; the Divine Breath, the One that was, is and will always be.
Perhaps we can look at the blessings and curses in Bekhukotai as parameters for a positive relationship, and not as evidence of a capricious, frightening deity.
What if we can imagine a different kind of Divine entity, one that grows up when we do, that perhaps isn’t “in charge” of the world and events, but is available to support us, nurture us, comfort us and sustain us? As I’ve gotten older, my understanding of God and how she works in the world has evolved, and God willing, it will continue to evolve. May we be blessed to each develop our personal relationships with a God we can believe in.
Hazak, Hazak, v’nitkhazek, Be strong, be strong, and may we–together–be strengthened.