Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27) Subject or Object? The Choice is Yours

The 26th chapter of Leviticus sets out with stunning clarity the terms of Jewish life for following the Almighty’s directives. On one hand, there is an idyllic picture of the blessing of Divine favor. How? If Israel follows G-d’s decrees and keeps His commands, there will be rain, the earth will yield its fruit, there will be peace, the people will flourish, they will have children, and the Divine presence will be in their midst. G-d will make them free. “I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” The other side of the equation, though, is terrifying; it’s what befalls the nation when the Jews fail to honor their mission: But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands … I will bring sudden terror upon you, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it … If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze … I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled … As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them. (Lev. 26: 14-36)Read in its entirety, this passage is more like Holocaust literature than anything else. The repeated phrases – “If after all this . . . If despite this . . . If despite everything” – come like hammer-blows of fate. It is a passage shattering in its impact, all the more so since so much of it came true at various times in Jewish history. Yet the curses end with the most profound promise of ultimate consolation. Despite everything G-d will not break His covenant with the Jewish people. Collectively they will be eternal. They may suffer, but they will never be destroyed. They will undergo exile but eventually they will return.The first and most important principle is this: A nation cannot worship itself and survive. Sooner or later, power will corrupt those who wield it. If fortune favors it and it grows rich, it will become self-indulgent and eventually decadent. Its citizens will no longer have the courage to fight for their liberty, and it will fall to another, more Spartan power.If there are gross inequalities, the people will lack a sense of the common good. If government is high-handed and non-accountable, it will fail to command the loyalty of the people. But this is not the path toward liberty. To stay free, a nation must worship something greater than itself, nothing less than G-d, together with the belief that all human beings are created in His image. Self-worship on a national scale leads to totalitarianism and the extinction of liberty. It took the loss of more than 100 million lives in the twentieth century to remind us of this truth. In the face of suffering and loss, there are two fundamentally different questions an individual or nation can ask, and they lead to quite different outcomes. The first possibility is, “What did I, or we, do wrong?” The second is, “Who did this to us?” It is not an exaggeration to say that these are the fundamental choices for both individuals and nations that govern their destinies. The latter leads inescapably to what is commonly known as victim culture. It locates the source of evil outside oneself. Someone else is to blame. It is not I or we who are at fault, but some external cause. The attraction of this logic can be overpowering because it generates sympathy but it is deeply destructive because it leads people to see themselves as objects, not subjects. They are done to, not doers; passive, not active. The results are anger, resentment, rage and a burning sense of injustice. None of these, however, ever leads to happiness or freedom, since by its very logic this mindset abdicates responsibility for the current circumstances in which one finds oneself. Blaming others is the suicide of liberty. Blaming oneself, by contrast, is difficult. It means living with constant self-criticism. It is not an instant route to peace of mind but it is profoundly empowering. The implication is that because I accept responsibility for the bad things that have happened, I also have the ability to chart a different course in the future. Within the terms set by covenant, the outcome depends on us. The politics of responsibility is not easy. The curses in this week’s Parsha are the very reverse of comforting. Yet, the profound consolations with which they end are not accidental, nor are they wishful thinking. They are testimony to the power of the human spirit when summoned to its highest vocation-when nation and individuals realize they are not helpless victims. As bad of a mess they have made, as long as they are willing, rectifying the situation is in their reach. Rebbi Nachman of Breslov once commented, if you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair. Individuals or nations who sees themselves as responsible for the evils that befall them, will also be the ones with inextinguishable power of recovery.   (Source: The Politics of Responsibility  by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; Likutei Moharan 2:112) 
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center