Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Behukotai

“But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that cause hopeless longing and depression. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.” (Lev 26:14-16)

I have two choices to make in every moment that I am conscious. I can choose to pay attention, or I can choose to ignore the world around me. Life really is just that simple; living life that simply is an arduous challenge.

Some people think it is odd that while I am not in any way shape or form a religious fundamentalist (some would wonder if I am religious at all), I absolutely believe that every meaningful conversation we can have begins with sacred scripture. Of course, I put a lot of emphasis on the words “Begins with.” This teaching is central in my faith world. We absolutely believe that scripture’s purpose is to grow a conversation that helps us see the world through the eyes of our heart and not our pocket; through our soul and not our ego or fear; through our spirit and not our need for power. When the text speaks on behalf of God, we have to pay special attention. We don’t believe God is quantifiable, but we do believe that divinity is accessible. The “commandments” spoken through God speak to the natural order of what should be the world’s demeanor. Where the words call for violence, our tradition teaches that the text screams to be debated – that we are never to take rules with blind faith. Long before Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” our sages mandated that one could not be faithful without engaging even God.

As this week’s text admonishes us to “listen” and “do,” I have to ask what it is that we are supposed to hear and practice. If the sum total of faith revolves around dotting the “I” and crossing the “T” of ritual, it has no value. Rather, this text screams at us to make the choice to pay attention and to act. Throughout Torah, we read admonitions to care for all who are in need, to take care of the Earth, to honor our neighbor, and to live in ways that benefit everyone, not just those we want to count amongst our circle. The text goes on to say that every time we fail to choose and live in such a manner, we scar the world. We may not feel the effect of our apathy, callousness, or hate today.

We do know that every such act lands somewhere on the balance sheet. No one person or movement has ever taken power on the back of another to not then lose it in an equally harsh or violent way. General William Tecumseh Sherman ached over having to fight. He argued, “You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war.” No one wins long term. In so many ways, our own American Civil War (a horrible name for the epic) never ended, and the racial divisions that pre-existed the war continue to rage in our streets and in far too many hearts for God to claim victory in the struggle for equality.

Our text tells us that when we fail to take care of each other, the whole community will suffer. Our work will only benefit others. We will be left hopeless. There is no worse emotion to experience than hopelessness; there is no more powerful curse than the poverty of a stricken soul.

The text is not telling us to do more religion. It is not telling us to say more words of prayer. The text tells us to live the prayer of dignity and peace; go out of our way to care for our neighbors (without exception); to remember that whichever one’s religion today, we have all been targeted by the other throughout time. We know the ways of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt – and in every other land. One cannot be okay being blind to the cries of another. One cannot be okay dismissing someone else simply because his/her life choices are beyond one’s own comprehension. These moments are opportunities for each of us to grow and to learn, if we shun and dismiss them, we throw away precious opportunities for ourselves. Thomas Edison taught us, “The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.” It’s time for that hard work – it pays amazing dividends.

Shabbat Shalom.