This week’s Torah portion is Behar-Behukotai and concludes the book of Leviticus. It describes the sabbatical and jubilee years. Every seventh year the land must lie fallow. In the seventh year even the land observes Shabbat. Every fiftieth year all debts are forgiven and everything and everyone returns to its original state. Freedom is restored to all people and every acre of land on this year. While the sabbatical year is still observed, although only in the State of Israel, the fiftieth jubilee year is not. However the command about the jubilee year forms the basis of the inscription on the Liberty Bell. The description of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:10 reads: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land…” This verse was selected because the Liberty Bell marked the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges.
In Leviticus 26 the Torah also proclaims: “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. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” (26:3-5)
The Torah says over and over again that if we observe mitzvot we will receive reward, that if we observe God’s Torah then there will be plenty and the land will never want. The reward is promised not in the next life but in the here and now. This of course begs the obvious question. Have you ever felt as if God is not keeping this promise? Each of us could cite far too many examples of friends, or family, who were not granted a full measure of years or natural disasters that destroyed cities and lives. So how are we to make sense of these verses?
There are of course those small minded Jews who see in such tragedies not a failure of God or an opportunity to examine themselves but a failure of other Jews. They say, “If only they were more observant…” These Jews examine not their own ways and their own failures. They do not re-examine their beliefs and theology. Instead they only speak about the failures of others. Worse still they blame tragedies on others. They speak with a certainty about God’s ways that should give every thinking person pause. God’s ways are mysterious. Who then can speak with such confidence?
Yet this is exactly how the Torah, our greatest book, speaks. Every verse is filled with certainty. “If…then” is its mode of thinking. “If you follow God’s commandments then you will receive rewards” is its mantra. Given the plain fact that the world does not live in accord with this precept, how are we to make sense of such verses? I refuse to cast blame on others. I refuse to weigh the benefits of observance according to a life and death calculus. I still, rather frequently, examine my own ways when confronted with a crisis. I, even more frequently, examine my faith.
And so let us examine our faith. Why do we do Jewish things? Why do we observe? Why do we go to Shabbat services? Why do we eat matzah? Why do we give tzedakah? Why do we not steal? Is it, as the Torah expounds, for the promise of reward or as this week’s Torah portion also states, out of fear of punishment. “If you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you…” (26:15-16)
To my mind these statements are not good reasons to observe. Such notions of reward and punishment make the mezuzah into a protective amulet and the commandments a shield. Then why do Jewish things?