Listening across our differences
Happy Lag B'Omer!

On engraved-pathways and connective-commandments: Bechukkotai

CJ_Candlesticks"If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments..."

These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, Bechukkotai, as rendered in the standard Jewish Publication Society translation. Why mention both "laws" and "commandments" -- isn't that redundant? Actually, not in the original Hebrew. Torah uses different words for different kind of mitzvot. Specifically, here, we have the terms chukim and mitzvot.

The word chok means a mitzvah for which we do not know the logical reason. (They're often juxtaposed with mishpatim, mitzvot for which the reason can be understood. Caring for the needyfor instance: it's clear why that's the ethical thing to do.) Kashrut and brit milah are two big chukim. No one who engages in these mitzvot does so for rational reasons. These are mitzvot which ask us to trust in practices we can't understand.

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that the word chok comes from the root meaning "engraved." He writes:

In order to transmit an engraved message, the medium of transmission must give up something of itself: this is what the chipping-out process of engraving entails. And the medium of transmission here is us. More than the other types of mitzvot, the chukim ask for a higher level of surrender to a will that is not our own...[and] I have found that they bring me closer to the realization of God.

Surrender is not always easy for moderns. I will admit that I struggle with the spiritual value of surrender. For women in particular, there is deep spiritual wisdom in learning how and when not to surrender -- how and when to prioritize our own needs and desires. And yet I can't deny Reb Zalman's point that sometimes giving myself over to a practice (such as wearing tefillin on weekdays) impacts me in deep spiritual ways.

Wearing tefillin changes me. Every time I do it, I feel different. I can't rationally explain why that is, but I know that it's true. When I lay tefillin, also, it leaves a mark on me for a while afterwards. I have to wind the straps tight, or it falls off the arm -- which means that when I unwind the straps, there is a spiral on my arm. The action engraves itself on me, and even once that engraving has faded, it has an impact on my actions and my choices and my heart.

The English word "laws" doesn't seem to quite cut it. Let's try "engraved-pathways," and look at that first verse again:

"If you follow My engraved-pathways and faithfully observe My commandments..."

We usually translate mitzvot simply as "commandments." But the Talmud teaches that the word mitzvah can also be linked with the Aramaic word צוותא / tzavta, "connection." A mitzvah isn't just something which God commands us to do. It's an act which connects us. Mitzvot connect us with our ancestors -- with our descendants -- with the world around us -- with the source of meaning and mystery which we name God.

Perhaps the English word "commandments" doesn't reflect the Hebrew deeply enough. Let's try "connective-commandments." And let's skip ahead a few verses and see what the Torah teaches will happen if, in fact, we do these things which God asks:

"If you follow My engraved-pathways and faithfully observe My connective-commandments... I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people."

This, Torah tells us, is the reward for allowing our lives to be engraved with the furrows and pathways of religious practice, the grooves of gratitude and ritual which we carve and through which our hearts and minds learn to flow. This is the reward for practicing the mitzvot, which connect us in to our deepest selves and out to our community around the world, back through the chain of generations and forward to the descendants we can't yet imagine. If we do these things, God will be present with us. The active covenantal relationship between us and God will flare to life and stay alive within us.

This week's Torah portion also tells us that if we follow in these pathways, the rains will fall in their season and we will have abundance. For many years, the Reform movement looked askance at verses like these, seeing in them a kind of supernaturalism which belied the reality that rains and good harvests -- good fortune and blessing -- come to everyone, or they don't, but either way, they don't seem to come only to those who lead ethical lives. We all know that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and vice versa (whether or not those people live a life of mitzvot); how then can we assert that our following of mitzvot impacts the rains and the harvest?

But in an era of increasing awareness of climate change, we may find new resonance in these verses. When we -- writ large; we, the human community -- act in awareness of our connections with each other and with our Source, then we are good stewards of our planet. And when we do not, we contribute to a changing global climate increasingly characterized by floods like the one in Boulder earlier this year, drought like the one my parents have been experiencing in Texas in recent years, even the melting of the western Antarctic ice sheet which appears, scientists say, to now be inevitable.

But we can always choose to act in mindfulness of our connections. Our connections with each other, with our tradition, with our planet. When we do these things, we let God into our lives. And when we give ourselves over to the wisdom and practices of Jewish tradition; when we use the connective tools of our tradition to link ourselves with our generations and with our source; those choices will create their own reward.


This is's the d'var Torah which I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: candlesticks engraved with the words שבת שלום, "Shabbat shalom."