At the end of this weeks combined parasha (Bechukotai) are a list of blessings and curses. The nature of these things is something we need to explore because many of you may have come from churches that taught either dispensationalism or replacement theology and these curses are understood as remaining on the children of Israel to this day. The ‘church’ has received all the blessings and ‘Israel’ or the Jews specifically have retained the curses for their rejection of the Messiah. Sound familiar?
First, we must realize that these blessings and curses are tied specifically to the covenant made on that day. The blessings and curses are tied to their obedience to “My decrees and... My commandments” (Lev 26:1). The blessings and curses have little to do with a later generation’s rejection of Mashiyakh (except possibly Deut 18:15 which hadn’t been given yet and cannot be directly tied to our passage). It also has nothing to do with life in the Olam Haba (the world to come) or what we may commonly refer to as ‘eternal salvation’. None of the commandments of Torah comprise rungs on the ladder to eternal life. G-d grants life on the basis of faith and His grace, nothing we do can put Him under the obligation to ‘save’ us and grant us eternal life.
What these blessings and curses are concerned with is the community of Israel and the task G-d has given them to be a light to the world. Israel has been called to bring the truth of G-d to a depraved world that loves the darkness more than the light. To accomplish that task, G-d placed them in Eretz Israel and gave them Torah, the most complete compilation of the ways of G-d ever written. They were to live out these truths in the land and by doing so the Word of G-d would go out from Zion. It was G-d’s plan to reach the world with His love and Truth.
As such, G-d had a lot riding on Israel and He had invested a lot of time and effort in creating this people. And He committed Himself to them irrevocably, He was not going to discard them and start over. Hence, in order to encourage them to fulfill the mission to which He had called them, a mission they had enthusiastically accepted at Mt. Sinai, He gave them a list of the consequences of their actions. Because if they were not obedient to the covenant, if they were not demonstrating the truth of G-d in their lives by living out Torah, they were not fulfilling their crucial mission. But notice that everything is tied to the land and the covenant. The blessings and the curses are both earthly, not spiritual. The rabbis understood that the blessings were designed to make the covenant easy to fulfill and the curses were there to prod Israel to repentance and encourage them to once again embrace their responsibility.
As we have now joined this people through covenant and Messiah, these things now apply to us. We are now shouldered with the responsibility of obeying to covenant to be living examples of G-d’s truth in this world. If we disregard those responsibilities or take them lightly, the consequences are severe for the name of G-d rests upon us, His truth and honor are at stake in us. We want people to look at us and see G-d, we do not want G-d’s name to be blasphemed on account of us. As we finish this book and move on to Bamidbar, let us open a new book in our lives, taking our responsibility seriously and make our Father proud to call us His own.
This week’s portion deals with the ‘sabbatical years’ and slavery and continues to make the point that it is G-d who is in ultimate possession of the land and the people and all need to be treated as such. What we are going to look at this week is the release of slaves and what implications that has for our relationship with YHVH.
Verses 39-55 deal with this particular area, again with the reminder that the people of Israel are G-d’s servants first, and are not to be sold forever. They are to be returned to their state of freedom because that is their ‘natural’ state as the people of G-d. Shemot (Ex) 21 also gives us some information here and tells us that after six years the Israelite slave is to go free for nothing. What does the phrase ‘for nothing’ mean? It is used in reference also to the food they ate in Egypt ‘for nothing’ which the Zohar tells us means ‘without blessing’. This was because they had been ‘sold into slavery’ and were for a time, not G-d’s ‘possession’. The Yoke of Heaven was not upon them, the yoke of Egypt was. There responsibilities lay there. And there was their reward, of you could call it that.
As we talk to people and testify to the value of the ‘yoke of heaven’ which we have voluntarily placed on ourselves, we wonder why those we talk to cannot see the same value. And we wonder why the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt all the time. Slavery and servitude has a certain attraction. What could that be, you ask? Provision without responsibility. By giving up one’s right to make decisions about one’s own life, all one’s basic needs are provided for. One does not need to look to G-d, because one is dependent upon a different master. That master could be the state in modern times, be it communism or even our current welfare state in the US and other western countries. It could be a job where your ability to succeed is limited by your contract or your employer’s conception of what you are worth.
Freedom, on the other hand, is being able to chart one’s own course, to realize one’s own potential. But that entails responsibility, hard work and the risk of failure. Whether that means being is business for yourself, or even taking control of your own thoughts, it requires discipline, sacrifice and diligence to succeed. But there are very few who have gone down that road and regretted it.
Let us bring this back to the ‘yoke of heaven’. The position G-d wanted the people of Israel in was to be subjected to Him and Him alone. If they were in slavery, individually or corporately, they did not have the freedom to pursue YHVH with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength. They attentions and responsibilities were divided at best. The Yoke of Heaven is the way of freedom, which to many of us sounds like a contradiction. Think of it this way. We all have a choice in how the ship of our lives runs. Too often we operate as if there has been a mutiny and the captain and navigator are locked in the hold. The ship is run by various competing interests who all have different ideas on the course to be steered. And the ship goes nowhere because even if the sailors could agree on a destination, they would have no idea how to get there. That is not freedom, that is bondage. Our job is to quell the mutiny and put the captain and the navigator back in charge. By imposing discipline and charting a course, the ship can go wherever the captain wants. Having the ability to reach any goal, that is freedom. Taking on the Yoke of Heaven means butting G-d in charge, allowing Him to develop godly character in us (discipline) and allow the navigator use the map (Torah) to guide us to our destination, which is to serve G-d however He leads. Ya’akov said it best when he said that the Torah brings freedom. Let us remove the shackles of slavery and joyfully take on the Yoke of Heaven.
This parasha, as well as Bechukosai which is read with it, contains a lot of what we might label ‘civil’ commandments. There are laws about the sabbatical years, the sale of land and the treatment of slaves. We may see such things as archaic but Jeremiah tells us that the length of the Babylonian exile was determined by the number of sabbatical years that were not kept. Such things are not just nice ideas but vital in the life of Israel.
Instead of trying to look at the details of the commands themselves, tearing them into their most minute parts like the rabbis might, let’s look at them in the ancient Hebrew way, according to function. Understanding function was essential to the Hebrew mind. The legal arguments of the rabbis of the Talmud would have been totally foreign to the Israelites of Moshe’s or David’s time. They did not want detailed pictures of things, they did not need intricate legal arguments, they wanted to know why and how something worked. What was this commandment supposed to produce? How was it going to make me a better person? What in the performance of the mitzvot drew one closer to the Creator? Israelites did not stand there with stopwatches on Shabbat, they wouldn’t have meticulously separated their cooking utensils, they did not perform routine circumcision checks. They were people who wanted to know how their shabbat could show them God as creator and redeemer, how the food they ate made them healthier spiritually and physically and what it meant to be part of a community bound by loyalty and friendship with God and man. These commands will show us the same type of things.
The three commands mentioned earlier all revolve around economics. The use and sale of land and slavery and servanthood are all basically economic concerns. The first thing we may notice is that by including it in the Torah and tying it linguistically and practically to the shabbat, economics cannot now be separated from religion or worship. So one of the functions of these three things is to recognize spirituality in the realm of economic activity. Work and worship are both ‘avod’, there is no separation between the drudgery of the daily grind and the soaring of the spirit during worship at shul. It may be tough to see but it’s true.
Another function of these things is to set limits on economic pursuit. Every seven years things shut down. You cannot keep persons sold to you indefinitely. Every fifty years property reverts to it’s original owner. The tireless pursuit and accumulation of wealth are mitigated by following such commands. The shabbats reserve time for concentrating on family and ‘spiritual’ activities lest we put ourselves out of balance. We cannot rise so high above our brother before everything goes back to where it was and everyone starts anew. Bad choices that lead to slavery do not have endless consequences.
Finally, because of the above functions, we become better people. How? Because we become selfless. In our culture, and in many others, one’s identity is wrapped up in the things we have accumulated. We create a self, an ego, from our work and it’s fruit. By showing that such things are transient, our being does not become attached to them, and by extension, the rest of the fading things of this world. By cultivating this attitude we achieve that which Sha’ul described as being content in all circumstances. We must work to eat but work is only one part of a balanced life. Torah includes such commands to help us develop proper balance.