Parashat Bechukotai 5779
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
“And I walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12).
This week we read the last Torah portion from the book of Vayikra. Some call this parashah “Tochecha Haktana,” “short warning,” in contrast to “Tochecha Hagdola,” “long warning” that appears in Parashat Ki Tavo, in the book of Devarim.
A striking aspect of this parashah is that the custom is to read the warning verses in a special way. We read them quietly, so much so that they are hardly heard. Whispered so low, what we read seems more terrible than if it were read aloud in a normal voice.
In addition, as is a very dramatic text, no one wants to have this Aliyah because people fear it. There is a custom to call “Iaale mi sheirtze,” whoever wants to have this Aliyah.
Rabbi Chaim used to say, “Everyone who goes to this Aliyah harei ze meshuvach” (he or she will get many blessings), encouraging someone to have this Aliyah. If no one rises, there is a custom to pay the shamash to do it. A third custom is to give this Aliyah to the rabbi.
Anyway, all this ritual surrounding the Aliyah conveys a sense of fear and worry. The text is based on a conditional philosophy. If you do well, you will receive a prize. If not, you will receive a punishment.
This is a thought that often appears in the Torah. Fortunately, it is not the only way of relating to God in our tradition.
It is interesting to point out that in the same parashah we can see another way of perceiving the divine. It is written in the Torah: “And I walk among you, and will be your God and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12).
This verse doesn’t express a relationship based on fear and punishment, rather, on love, support, and mutual commitment. It is a very beautiful picture God walking among us, every day, every morning, in difficult and also in joyful moments. This perspective is not focused on what we do right or wrong, but this view emphasizes that God has a strong commitment to love us for what we are and what we do.
In Shir Hashirim (Book of Songs of Songs) we can find a popular and pretty phrase that scholars attribute to the love between God and His people, resembling the bond of love of a couple in love: “Ani le dodi bedodi lí “,” I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me. “(Shir Hashirim 6:3).
Rashi, the medieval commentator, quoted a verse from the book of Bereshit (3: 8), which also mentions the idea that God walked in the Garden of Eden, and explained, “l walk with you in the Eden Garden as one of you, and do not shake because of me, you will not fear of me”.
As Rashi expounded, God is willing to walk with us wherever we are, it is up to us whether we hide, as Adam and Eve did, or to travel around the garden in God’s company. Although the Jewish tradition has the idea of reward and punishment in different sources, I believe that the world and human beings are too complex to limit ourselves to such linear thinking.
I think that tradition should give meaning to our lives, give us hope, identity, engagement, union and accompaniment rather than fear, worry, fear of punishment and guilt. Both paradigms appear in our parashah everyone is free to choose what kind of God to believe in and what perspective of Judaism to live.
Let us always have in mind this beautiful verse: “And I walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12).