Friday, May 31, 2024 / 23 Iyar 5784

Shalom Chaverim,

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, is known for its stark, black-and-white warning, called the tochecha:

Either follow God’s laws and observe the commandments – maintaining the covenant – and receive blessings;

Or, disobey God and not observe the commandments – spurning the covenant – and receive the worst misfortune and suffering imaginable.

The choice is ours: either/or, blessing or curse …

When we look at the world around us, however we realize that things are a little more subtle than that, a bit more ambiguous.

By way of example, there is the famous story of Rabbi Finkelstein, an avid golfer who played at every opportunity. In fact, it was rumored that some people claimed to have observed, whilst the rabbi was swaying through his davening, the appearance of his arms practicing a putt or two…

One Yom Kippur eve after Kol Nidre, Rabbi Finkelstein thought to himself, “Who is it going to get hurt if I go out and play a round? Its dark, nobody will be the wiser, and I’ll easily be back in time for morning services.” Sure enough, Rabbi Finkelstein snuck out of the Synagogue and headed straight for the golf course.

Looking down upon him by the light of the nearly full-moon were Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) and God.

Moshe said, “Look what that man is doing! And a Rabbi in Israel at that!!”

God replied, “I’ll teach him a lesson”

On the course itself Rabbi Finkelstein teed off and when he hit the ball, it careened off a tree, struck a rock, flew across a stream and landed in the hole for a HOLE IN ONE!

Seeing all this Moshe yelled, “God, this is how you’re going to teach him a lesson?! He got a hole in one!

“Sure”, said God, “but who is he going to tell?”

So maybe at first glance we don’t understand God’s system of rewards and punishment. We certainly cannot explain why some of us suffer, get a lousy lie in the sand trap of life; while others – no more evil or particularly moral or kind or righteous – have it easy: smooth fairways no matter how poor our tee-shots are.

Maybe God’s sense of justice, or God’s sense of humor, is beyond our grasp.

Traditionally, the verses of the tochecha in this week’s Torah portion are read from the Torah in a whispered undertone by a reluctant congregant who has been coerced into doing the reading. We pretend that if we don’t say those verses aloud – which spell out so clearly what horrible punishments await us as a People if we steer off the path of truth and righteousness that God would have us walk down -then maybe they won’t actually come-to-be.

Or maybe out of genuine humility: We don’t want to say in too strong or confident a voice that which we really know nothing about—the justice, or the seeming lack of it, that God metes out.

Are we at a total loss, then, to understand why things are the way they are in the world? Are we really rewarded or punished for either following the commandments or disregarding them? Is God suggesting to us that the Torah should be followed – not for its own inherent value – but out of fear of punishment or because of the alluring promise of reward?!

The point that this week’s Torah portion makes most strikingly is that we have some choice, albeit limited. Im bichukotai talchu – IF we walk in the way of God’s laws, then it will all work out. If not, well then, it was up to us. Yet some Rabbis interpreted the words “My laws”, “My commandments” spoken in the text by God as meaning that God, too, is bound by these very same laws and commandments! We have as much free choice in how to behave in the world as God does—no more and no less.

This does not change our predicament at all, but, I for one, find it somewhat comforting that God is bound by certain moral and physical rules, that our world is not governed by Divine fiat nor random chaos. True, I may not understand it all, but when I choose to perform a mitzvah it is possible – at least sometimes – to experience a sense of harmony with the universe, a sense that there IS a Truth and Righteousness that I as a human can tap into because God Him or Herself works within the same framework of the world’s natural moral and physical laws as we do.

We humans have the capacity to understand a little something of how God works. In turn, we can assume God understands a little something of how we work too. We can focus on the promise of positive rewards for the good we do. We can choose, through our actions, to strive to merit such blessings in our day. We may discover that that choice is perhaps its own reward…


Rabbi Michael Schwartz