The Torah’s Lessons for Society
The concluding parashah of Leviticus, B’hukkotai, centers on God’s enumeration of both blessing and curse—the blessings that will follow upon observance of the commandments and the curses that will result from violation of the commandments.
The relation of reward and punishment, tragedy and beneficence, is one of the most difficult theological problems. Indeed, the question of how the two are related is certainly one of the preoccupations of biblical thought. The Book of Job, for instance, is centered on the problem, as is much of prophetic and psalmic literature. When applied to individuals, the doctrine of reward and punishment all too frequently seems cruel. The Bible certainly tells us that illness and personal tragedy can be visited upon those who are the most saintly among us, and that wealth and long life can be the fate of those who are notoriously sinful.
Yet the notion of reward and punishment retains a certain ideational vitality for us. We continue to recite a version of it each day in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma. Somehow the idea that there is an ultimate justice in the universe, that good and evil have consequence, retains considerable power.
It is interesting to see how much of the idea of reward and punishment both in the Sh’ma and in our parashah is connected with the land. We are told in our parashah that if one does not observe the sabbatical year, “then the earth will desire its own Sabbaths” (Lev. 26:34). It is the land which will demand its due, if it is not treated correctly. We can easily hear resonances with our contemporary situation in this verse: if we act responsibly towards our planet Earth, then we will be able to live with a certain fullness and blessing; and if not, then the oceans will reclaim the land, species will die out, nations will suffer from hunger, and our lives will be threatened. There are demands made of us in how we live, in how we behave and treat the natural world—if we do not heed them, we will have to pay the consequences.
Moreover, perhaps some of our personal relationships are like that, built on the natural consequences of the particular histories we share with one another: if time after time we respond to a friend, a family member, a colleague, in a way which is caring, helpful, and respectful, then we weave a certain fabric of relationship. We all remember the people who were with us on our special occasions, who went out of their way to celebrate with us even when the timing of our simchas may have been inconvenient; similarly, we know which friends returned our phone calls promptly when we were struggling, when they knew we were in pain, and we in turn respond to them with especial tenderness. Marriages are built out of that mutual care, and if too often my partner is not there for me, is habitually distracted and self-absorbed, then slowly, something in the relationship changes, a distance, a mistrust is created. Similarly, children can be put “on hold” only to a point—finally they give up on us, are wounded and turn away.
In the end though, the biblical verses are not addressed primarily to individuals but to societies. And in that regard, there is something of the biblical notion of reward and punishment that we might particularly want to hold on to. Societies that disregard the call of justice, societies that are neglectful of the weak and vulnerable, societies that glorify self-interest, material concerns, and immediate gratification, are societies whose inner corruption will inevitably lead to their fall. As Jews, we have seen the fall of empires that boasted they were eternal, empires that ruled half the known world; we have been witness to their fate.
The fate of those nations should be a warning about the hubris of power and the need to cultivate values that are holy; in upholding the holy, we bind ourselves to the Holy. Might we not look toward a world of blessing, a world in which the weak are cared for, a world in which we are conscious of satisfying not only our own hungers and appetites, but of feeding all? Would it not be a blessing if we each manifested such attitudes of care? The biblical vision of such a world proclaims, “I will give peace to the land and you shall lie down without fear” (Lev. 26:6). Is that not a goal to strive for, whatever our theological doubts?
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.