This week we will be reading from parashat B’chukotai. It is the final Torah portion in the book of Leviticus as well as the conclusion of the holiness code that began withAcharei Mot-Kedoshim.
Much of B’chukotai is focused on the rewards of following the mitzvot as well as the consequences if the community fails to follow God’s laws. Both the rewards and consequences are enumerated for the community. This is because the entire Israelite community was held accountable for the actions of its members.
This is why B’chukotai teaches us that if we follow God’s commands God will “grant peace in the land” (Lev. 26:6), God “will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you” (Lev. 26:9), and God will “establish God’s abode in our midst” (Lev. 26:10).
However, if we fail to “obey God and do not observe all of these commandments” (Lev. 26:14), God will, “Wreak misery … consumption and fever and you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it” (Lev. 26:16). Or to put it another way, for blessing or for curse, all of Israel, kol averim zeh v’zeh, is responsible for one another.
Thus, we see spelled out one of the most central premises of Judaism which is the concept of obligations. Nowhere in our tradition does it speak of ‘rights.’ Instead it speaks of what we are supposed to do and what we are not supposed to do. However, the idea of mitzvot and rights are not exactly opposites. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Rights are things we claim. Duties are things we perform. Duties, in other words, are rights translated from the passive to the active mode.”
Therefore many of the mitzvot listed especially in the final parshiyot of Leviticus are a reminder of how to translate opportunities into holiness. As Rabbi Sacks also wrote, “One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, his ‘partners in the world of creation’. The God who created the world in love calls on us to create in love. The God who gave us the gift of freedom asks us to use it to honour and enhance the freedom of others.”
May we all be inspired to act in sacred ways that brings not only holiness to ourselves but also honors others, brings more freedom to others, and through this also glorifies God and God’s holy name.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff