Bechukotai: Not yet

If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and you fulfill them…(Vayikra 26:3)

Six hundred thirteen precepts:
I do not know and keep them all;

and some of them I know and love
enacting them with care and joy

while others – I have not yet discerned
a way to make them mine.

But if I walk along this path
with softened heart and open mind

intent may yet develop into deed.

Parashat Bechukotai concludes the Book of Vayikra which contains more commandments in it than any of the other four books in the Torah. In this parasha, God promises that if the children of Israel keep His commandments, they will be rewarded with material prosperity and dwell securely in their land. But He also delivers a very disturbing and grim “rebuke,’ warning of exile, persecution and other curses that will befall them if they forsake their covenant with Him. An unusual word keri runs through this section of curses, and is found in this Parasha and nowhere else in the Tanach. “If you walk with Me with keri … then I will walk with you with keri.
There are many interpretations of this word. Targum Onkelos reads it as “hard-heartedly”.

In his book Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitschak of Berdichev notes on Parashat Bechukotai’s opening sentence that there seem to be some superfluous words, “If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them….” He wonders why the Torah does not simply say, “If you keep My commandments…” So Rabbi Levi Yitschak suggests we look at this verse in the light of a quote from the Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) “The Blessed Holy One ties good thoughts to deeds.” This is understood to mean that when we consider taking an action upon ourselves, God attributes the thought as though we had performed the deed. Rabbi Levi Yitschak expounds the theme, commenting that one who “walks” is understood to mean one who progresses spiritually. So he teaches that one who “walks” in the way of God’s statutes, and even just thinks about observing them, it is considered as though he has fulfilled them.
In his book, Partner in Holiness*, Rabbi Jonathan Slater says that this parasha is filled with blessings if we fulfill God’s commandments and curses if we don’t. He says, “It can be terrifying. The possibility of failure in our lives is so great. When we pay attention to the potential outcomes of our behavior, we can indeed witness the “destruction” and “exile” that may come in their wake. Further, we are aware of the question, how will we ever do all that is expected, let alone avoid all that is proscribed? Yet, what a relief! Levi Yitzhak offers us instead this unusual and redemptive lesson. Rather than focusing on what we have not done, he focuses on our positive intention , not even the good that we might do. Here is a wonderful way out, and up.”
Rabbi Levi Yitschak further notes that the word used to “keep” the commandments “tishmeru” comes from the same root Sh-M-R that appears when Jacob notices that his older sons are starting to hate Joseph (Bereishit 37:5) where it means he was beginning to be aware of what was going on. Here the Berdichever is inviting us to have an awareness of what is arising and of our deepest intentions that might at some point come to fruition. Rabbi Slater adds, “I have moved along my own spiritual path over the years, buoyed by Franz Rosenzweig’s idea of “not yet”**. I accept that there are commandments out there waiting for me yet to perform, but I have “not yet” been able honestly to take them on.” Rabbi Slater wonders whether this fits with the Berdichever’s teaching, and what happens if “not yet” becomes never, and how we might keep our intention alive so that we keep moving on.

In a commentary on Behar/Bechukotai from 2012,, Rabbi David Hoffman notes that it is frequently emphasized that in Judaism, what one does in the world is what matters, not what he/she thinks. He says, “The Torah demands we pursue a life rightly lived over beliefs rightly held. This argument underscores that the project of Torah is concerned with our behavior and not our internal life. Sinful might be a word that describes an act in Judaism, but it is not a word Jews would use to describe thoughts or feelings. A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. The way to God comes by way of the mitzvah — a deed…”
Dr Hoffman says that he has always enjoyed this aspect of Judaism – that what seems to matter most in our relationships with the outside world and with others is what we do. Furthermore, this approach that emphasizes the mitzvah – the deed – “pushes us out of our heads and into the world.” Finally, he adds, “…selfishly, I also enjoy the minimal boundaries this approach places on my emotional and cognitive life. I am not asked to regulate my mental activity. My mind is free to wander where it likes, perhaps not guiltlessly, but certainly with great impunity.”
But, he continues, he finds this separation between deeds and thoughts problematic both religiously and psychologically. Rabbi Hoffman says, “While I continue to understand a certain privileging of deed over thought, and the ways in which deeds might actually bring us to a place of faith, removing our internal world from the religious conversation seems to belie a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between our mind and our behavior. Not only do thoughts create the context for behavior, but the more that scientists learn about the brain, the more they believe that our mental activity actually creates new neural structures. Consequently, “even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain, much like a spring shower can leave little trails on a hillside” (Hanson and Mendius, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom [Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2009], 5). What happens in the mind changes the brain, both in temporary and in lasting ways. A practice of attention to and regulation of our thoughts is an integral part of the experience of other wisdom traditions and modern understandings of psychological growth. How can we, as Jews, simply ignore the mind in the religious experience?” He too brings the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitschak. He suggests that the Berditchever’s interpretation of “If you walk in My statutes…” meaning “if you think about God’s ways” is teaching that the Torah here “expands its religious claim on the human being…Not only will the performance (faithful observation) of God’s commandments — actual deeds — bring blessings; the Torah also insists that the ways in which a person thinks and conceives of the world come under the purview of God, and offers us an additional means by which to experience blessings.” Rabbi Hoffman concludes, “In important ways, our thoughts program us to experience the world. Generous thoughts and constructive thinking actually create distinct neural pathways in the brain. Positive thoughts produce blessings, and negative thoughts take us down paths that move us farther away from God. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak argues that we can and must attempt to influence our conscious mental activity. Seen in this light, practicing compassion for oneself and others is a creative and religious behavior, even though it might not include a physical act. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak focuses our attention on the internal, and asks that we blur the boundary between thoughts and deeds in order to better appreciate the complex relationship between our internal and external lives.”

*A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi

**[Rosenzweig]… did think that he would one day become a fully observant Jew, but believed in the gradual approach in which the observances slowly made their impact by “ringing a bell” for him. Typical of this approach is Rosenzweig’s answer to someone who asked him whether he wore tefillin [phylacteries]: “Not yet,” he replied.
(From an article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs)




Behar: Redeeming the land

But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord…And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his holding, and you shall return, each man to his family…Therefore, throughout the land of your possession, you shall give redemption for the land. (Vayikra 25:4,10,24)

Motes of light descend on ready earth,
seeds of promise grow untrammeled,
nurtured at the Source.

We glimpse the dream: a mended world –
the poor are steadied, justice done;
the slaves go free; the land breathes.

And God smiles as He gathers in His crop.

The Sefat Emet comments on the phrase that mandates that in the year of the Yovel – the Jubilee, each man shall return to his holding. Here, he says, “holding” refers not to a person’s physical place of origin, but rather to his spiritual (divine) origin.

In a commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Edward Feinstein notes that we learn in this same parasha, of God’s concerns for the poor and struggling. He points out that four times in this short parasha, the Torah tells us, “Should your brother sink into poverty…” The poor must be sustained. Interest may not be demanded on money loans. Lands sold off to cover debts must be returned to the original family. And, finally to enable the poor to redeem themselves from an ongoing cycle of slavery, a Jubilee is proclaimed every fifty years. In this year, all properties return to their original owners and all debts and contracts of indentured servitude are canceled. Thus the balance of economic power is restored to its original state of equality.
Rabbi Feinstein adds that the Torah is concerned, too, about the impoverishment of the land. He says, “In our pursuit of wealth we abuse and overwork the land.” Thus the Torah commands in this parasha that the land lie fallow for a complete year of rest.

In a further commentary on this week’s parasha, Behar,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that although the Jewish people were not sovereign in their own land for most of their history, their yearning and connection to the land never weakened and the liturgy is replete with allusions to their love for it and their dreams to return. We find in this week’s parasha a verse in which God tells the people to bring redemption to the land. Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders what this might mean, to bring redemption to a land. Agricultural instructions are issued throughout the Torah regarding the land, but he says clearly this is not one of them. He says, “According to most biblical commentators, this verse is understood as mandating a loving Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.” He notes that the land is referred to as an “achuzah – a holding” and is a part of our covenantal relationship with God. He adds, “Our ancestors agreed to serve only God, and God agreed to maintain a unique relationship with the Jewish People. That relationship was given form in the detailed legislation of the Torah and the Talmud as a way of shaping and cultivating the reciprocal obligations between God and the Jews. And the one place in the world where the Jewish People could act on every part of our brit was within the Land of Israel…”
The return of the Jewish people to its own land, then, represents an unprecedented opportunity to redeem the land by upholding social justice, as envisioned in Israel’s Declaration of Statehood in 1948 and, more explicitly, its 1992 Basic Law: Human Liberty and Dignity: “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free.”

Emor: The Journey

From the holy place he shall not go forth, so that he not desecrate the sanctuary of his God… (Vayikra 21:12).

Leaving the sanctuary,
bewildered, we wander,
although the end of the journey is known.

The quest for awareness
is measured in increments
and each step is charted on tortuous paths.

The pull of the sacred
abates and revives, and we spin
as a lodestone that seeks out the north

and points the way home.

The simple understanding of this verse pertains to the ban on the High priest from leaving the sanctuary for the purpose of attending the burial of even the closest of family members (including his parents) as he would be unable to purify himself so completely as to avoid the risk of defiling the Holy of Holies. Some Chasidic masters, however, reflected in this verse their preoccupation with the need to live in the everyday world while serving God. In his book Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Rabbi Arthur Green et al* cite the Ba’al Shem Tov who says that this verse is alluded to in a passage in the Zohar, “Blessed are the righteous who know how to turn their desire upward toward the sublime King, rather than toward this world and its shameful vanity.” (2:134b). So the Ba’al Shem Tov says that a person’s thoughts should be directed to the upper world, to God. On the phrase, “From the holy place he shall not go forth…” he teaches that when speaking of worldly matters, a person should have in mind that she is walking downwards from the upper world, like a person leaving her home to go outside, but planning to return straight away. As she walks along she will be thinking, “When will I be returning home?” The Ba’al Shem Tov says, “Your thoughts should always be in the upper world; there is your essential home, cleaving to your Creator. This is the case even though you may be speaking of wordly matters. Reconnect yourself to that which is above as soon as you are able.”
Rabbi Green points out that BeShT “transferred” this passage concerning the High Priest “directly to the tsaddik or the devotee, one who makes it his life’s work never to depart from the inner Temple.”
However, in Rabbi Green’s discussion with his co-authors (Emor Round Two), they agree that this interpretation is relevant for everyone. They cite several Chasidic masters: Rav Yeevi suggests that when we need to “descend” to the mundane world, there are mitsvot to be performed among fellow people; the Or HaGanuz teaches that when we are “down here”, we bear in mind that “home” is elsewhere, “the land of the soul” is the true dwelling place; the Me’or Eynayim says that perpetual awareness of God can be cultivated.
These Rabbis are teaching that even if “home” is in the “other world” you have to leave that home sometimes and work in this world. Ebn Leader (one of the co-authors) suggests, “This is why the voice of the Me’or Eynayim is so important. Living in the world causes us to lose awareness. We forget our own potential for spiritual greatness. How do we restore it? By doing what a “priest” should do: loving people and bringing them to Torah! That will restore our faith in ourselves, in our own spiritual strength.”

Fittingly perhaps, Parashat Emor also contains the commandment regarding the counting of the Omer: And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering — the day after the Sabbath — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete. (Vayikra 23:15)
In her commentary on the Parasha from 2012,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld wonders why the Torah wasn’t given to the B’nei Yisrael as soon as they had escaped from Egypt. She says that it would seem to make sense: they were wandering and uncertain. They might have been reassured and strengthened by an immediate revelation. Why, she asks, do we have these 49 days to count, of Sefirat Ha’Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot? She says the destination was clear: God had told Moses at the burning bush at Mount Sinai that the people would return here to worship Him.
Dr Anisfeld says this teaches us that the Torah is not acquired easily. She cites the Netivot Shalom, who quotes the Mesilat Yesharim as saying that “tehilato be’hishtadlut vesofo bematanah – its beginning is through struggle and its end is a gift.” Dr Anisfeld says, “First a person has to work hard on her own, put some effort in; she can’t make it all the way on her own; the end result is a gift from above, but the gift only comes to one who has struggled. Enlightenment, or revelation, as the saying goes, only comes to the prepared mind, to the prepared soul.”
She also cites the Kedushat Levi who teaches us that on Pesach we receive the first experience of revelation and “an awakening from above”, and then we have the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer, of counting the Omer to continue that “awakening from below”. We are commanded, “Usefartaem lachem – count for yourselves” to teach us, Dr Anisfeld says, “You have to do it yourselves, out of your own volition and initiative.”
She adds that it is not by chance that we have this interim period between Pesach and Shavuot, during which we are mandated to find our way from one to the other. She says, “I think that most of us lead most of our lives precisely in this Sefirah state. We have some vague memory of a past revelation buried inside us, and we can occasionally catch glimpses of a revelation in front of us as well. The daily work is in this middle period of the Sefirah, in our own struggle to find direction, to be able to see Mount Sinai in the distance, and to feel its gravitational pull. The Hasidic commentaries understand sefirah as coming from sappir, or sapphire, referring to a clarity or brightness. The point of this time-period is to create within oneself a clarity of vision, a sense of purpose.”
Dr Anisfeld concludes, “Like the Israelites in the desert, we are all sometimes wanderers, winding our way through life, lost and directionless. Sefirat HaOmer is a way of asserting that our lives are colored by revelation on all sides of us, so that our current state looks backward and forward and is part of some chain. We count each day to remind ourselves of these connections, to help us feel, despite our existential bewilderment, that we are grounded, that we can see the revelation just over the horizon, and that each step is part of a path forward, given a sense of direction by its surrounding poles of clarity.”

*Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table by Rabbi Arthur Green with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose.


Kedoshim: Still Sacred

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:32)

You shall rise before the aged
even when his face is wrinkled,
his mouth caved-in, his speech unclear
and his answer to your loudly spoken question,
if it comes at all,
is tortuously wrested
from the far-off reaches
of his mind.

You shall show deference to the old
for holiness adhered
to the fragments of the tablets:
they were reverently sited
inside the sacred ark,
together with the flawless
and more newly written version.

In a document produced by the TAG Institute,, addressing the Jewish perspective on ageing, the former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen is quoted (from a paper he delivered): “Is old age a blessing or a curse?” Although he replies that old age is clearly a blessing, he also demonstrates that the loneliness, loss of dependence and decline in faculties associated with age were recognized by the sages, and they related openly to these issues. He concludes that the Jewish perspective on ageing is that long life is a great blessing as long as the person also enjoys mental clarity and physical health.

The Torah is replete with references venerating the elderly, especially relating to their experience and wisdom. Seventy elders escorted Moses on his way to the summit of Mt. Sinai, and subsequently served as counselors and judges for the people as they traversed the desert. The word used, “zekeinim” denotes experience and wisdom and is used as a term of veneration in the Mishnah and Talmud, and the Rabbis are often referred to as “zekeinim“. Even someone young, but preternaturally wise, is given the title of “elder.”

We find in Pirkei Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers (5:24) this depiction by Rabbi Judah ben Teima of the stages of life: “He used to say: At five [one should begin the study of] Scriptures; at ten, Mishnah; at thirteen [one becomes obligated in] the commandments; at fifteen, [the study of] Talmud; at eighteen, the wedding canopy; at twenty, for one’s life pursuit, at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for gray hairs, at eighty for special strength (Psalm 90:10), at ninety for decrepitude, and at a hundred a man is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world” “. Rabbi Judah describes a certain peaking of intellectual attainment, but he then suggests a deterioration which despite centuries of medical advances, is still a common phenomenon today.

In a collection of articles addressing Jewish attitudes to ageing,, we find a commentary by Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who says,”Not everyone who ages becomes wiser, intellectually or behaviorally. Dementia is a plague that affects close to 10 percent of the population. The rules of respect govern all the aged, including those afflicted with dementia.
“The shattered tablets containing the Ten Statements were placed in the ark together with the intact second set, as if to accentuate that one whose reality is shattered remains holy.”

On the same website, there is a further commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch who notes that “Jewish tradition is suffused with sacred obligations regarding the aged.” The best-known mandate is perhaps the verse cited above that appears in this week’s Parasha, Kedoshim. Rabbi Biatch says, “The implications of this law are clear: recognition of the place of the aged, and demonstration of respect for age and life/world experience.” He suggests that the two different instructions, however, are not identical. “Rising” could be an empty charade whereas “showing deference” involves taking action.

In his book Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End, Dr Atul Gawande describes how old age has changed: “In the past, surviving into old age was uncommon, and those who did survive served a special purpose as guardians of tradition, knowledge, and history. They tended to maintain their status and authority as heads of the household until death. In many societies, elders not only commanded respect and obedience but also led sacred rites and wielded political power. So much respect accrued to the elderly that people used to pretend to be older than they were, not younger, when giving their age…The dignity of old age was something to which everyone aspired.”
He continues though, that living to old age is no longer rare. Furthermore, the knowledge and wisdom of which the elderly were once the sole repositories, has expanded exponentially and become available to all as technologies of communication, starting with reading and extending to and beyond the Internet. He says, “New technology also creates new occupations and requires new expertise, which further undermines the value of long experience and seasoned judgment. At one time, we might have turned to an old-timer to explain the world. Now we consult Google, and if we have trouble with the computer we ask a teenager.”
Dr Gawande describes, too, how increased longevity, coupled with global economic development, has brought about a transformation in the structure of the family. This has involved a drastic shift from the extended family, comprised of several generations living under one roof, in which the elderly were venerated and cared for until the end, to the nuclear family in which young adults, often moving as job opportunities arise further afield, set up their own small unit separately from their parents. Modernization has brought much-prized independence to both young and old. He cites some statistics that reflect the effects of this: whereas in the early 1900s in America, sixty percent of those over sixty-five lived with a child, by the 1960s the figure had dropped to twenty-five percent and by 1975 it was below fifteen percent. Dr Gawande says “Only ten percent of Europeans over age eighty live with their children, and almost half live completely alone without their spouse. In Asia, where the idea of an elderly parent being left to live alone has traditionally been regarded as shameful…the same radical shift is taking place.” But, he says, all this ignores one critical problem, “Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new question arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be maintained?” The answer that society came up with, as Dr Gawande relates throughout his book, is the “nursing home” or “old age home”. And in the vast majority of these, as he describes, residents have traditionally undergone “infantilization” as they are required to surrender their autonomy in the interests of their safety. Their lives are regimented in order to facilitate ensuring the physical well-being of a large number of people at once. They are required to drastically down-size their belongings in order for them to be accommodated into a much smaller space. They may end up sharing a room. They are woken up, dressed (if necessary) and eat (canteen-type food) according to the rigid pre-ordained schedule of institutionalized life. Dr Gawande wonders at “…the idea that just because you can’t walk anymore or you can’t eat the food you used to eat, that therefore you don’t have a contribution to make or you can’t be the leader of your own life? ” His book is a plea to society to re-think the goal that matters most to the elderly and debilitated: “How to make life worth living when we are weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves any more.”
Even in the case of individuals suffering from dementia, the evidence is coming in that there are many ways to help them retain connection. Dr Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author describes the positive effect that music has on dementia patients.
Dr BJ Miller the palliative care physician suggests in his TED talk: What Really Matters at the End of Life* “As long as we have our senses – even just one – we have at least the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human, connected. Imagine the ripples of this notion for the millions of people living and dying with dementia. Primal sensorial delights that say the things we don’t have words for, impulses that make us stay present – no need for a past or a future.”
Dr Gawande describes some new initiatives that are beginning to address this goal of prioritizing individuals’ dignity and desires, fostering their connection with the world outside, and enabling them to continue to “write their own story”.

*Link to the talk and the transcript:

Yom HaShoah: The Pear Tree

Pushed, panicked
into the closet.
A quick fierce reminder
whispered in darkness
shocks them to silence.

Petrified, motionless,
two small girls wait,
eyes staring widely
into the blackness
as hours inch
endlessly past.

The door at last opens:
stiffly they stumble
blinded by light

and out in the garden
against the blue sky
a pear tree is swaying
brushed by the wind, and
it whispers of freedom.

The idea for this poem arose from a talk I attended last year on Erev Yom HaShoah, at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The speaker was Mrs. Chana Yair who was born in Hungary. She described her experiences as a nine-year-old girl who was separated suddenly from her family.