Friday, May 16, 2014

The Sin of Happenstance: Parashat Bechukotai

One of the most important lessons I learned in rabbinical school was from my Bible professor, Dr. David Sperling.  He always told us that the ancient Israelites preferred to believe in an angry God instead of an arbitrary God.  Consequences that are arbitrary, happenstance, and without reason are far more frightening and disturbing than those for which there is cause.  The Israelites preferred to create  narratives where there was almost always a causal relationship between sin and calamity, even if it meant blaming themselves for whatever negative result befell them.  This trend in Jewish historiography has had positive and negative implications for the Jewish people.  On the positive end, we are a people willing to look inward critically in order to improve.  On the other end, sometimes we cannot properly identify outside evil and danger because of our inward focus.

Despite the complexities of looking at our national history through this lens, we can learn a great deal about relationships (their successes and downfalls) when we confront the Jewish aversion to arbitrariness. When we get into fights with a person we love, the worst weapon we can wield is ignoring the person -- treating her as though she is dispensable and meaningless.  Invisibility is worse than disgust.  We confront this fact in the week's Torah portion, parashat Bechukotai.  God lets the Israelites know the worst sin they can commit against the Divine:

23And if, through these, you will still not be chastised [to return] to Me, and if you [continue to] treat Me happenstance,כג. וְאִם בְּאֵלֶּה לֹא תִוָּסְרוּ לִי וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי קֶרִי:

24Then I too, will treat you as happenstance. I will again add seven punishments for your sins:

כד. וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם בְּקֶרִי וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם גַּם אָנִי שֶׁבַע עַל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם:

In Hebrew, God uses the phrase, " וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי קֶרִי:" the direct translations of which is, "If you walk with me by chance."  If an Israelite believes that they just happened to be redeemed from slavery, if they believe they just happened to receive the gift of Torah, if they believe that their safety and ultimate redemption were accidents of history, they have committed the gravest of sins.  Like a child who doesn't recognize that their achievements are directly linked to the toil and sacrifice of their parents, we can all fall into the trap of seeing the world only in terms of our own achievements, and be willfully blind to the gifts bestowed by others.  

As Jews, a people who believe in a God that we cannot see, touch, or feel, it is often easy to ignore God's gifts.  It is too easy to ignore the life force that connects us to one another.  It is too easy to lose our sense of wonder.  It is too easy to believe that the bounty we enjoy just happened to come into existence.  But we learn in this week's portion, there is nothing more painful to God than to be ignored, to be left in silence -- The Source of Life seeks our recognition, our blessings, our conversation, our awe, and ultimately, our gratitude.

Judaism is a religion without a dogma, and as such it is hard to imagine what a person could say in order to be considered an apostate.  However, we learn there is one sentence that can be uttered that places you outside the boundaries of the faith, "There is no judge and there is no judgement."   Apostasy in Judaism is a form of nihilism -- it is the belief that everything is happenstance and arbitrary, that nothing really matters.

Let us learn from this week's portion to recognize the gifts we enjoy that come from God's grace and the goodness of others.  Let us not fall into laziness of thought or belief, failing to see the relationships between cause and effect.  There are many mysteries in the universe,  but there are also many things we are indeed capable of knowing.  Let us not ignore the sources of our privilege and blessing, take accountability for who we are and what we have, and give earnest thanks.

Shabbat Shalom.