B'Chukkotai - 5779
Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
Can a Torah commentary start with a Santa story? You decide.
Rabbi Paul Plotkin shares the following:
Jane and her older sister had been fighting a lot this year. Jane’s parents warned her that Santa Clause was watching, and Santa does not like it when children fight.
Well, that did not have much of an impact! So, the mother said, “I’ll just have to tell Santa about your misbehavior;” and she picked up the phone and dialed.
Jane’s eyes grew big, as her mother said,
“Hello, Mrs. Clause? [It was really Jane’s aunt; Santa’s real line was apparently busy] Mrs. Clause, is it okay if you could put Santa on the line?”
Jane’s mouth dropped open, as mom described to Santa [Jane’s uncle], how the three year old was acting. And then mom put Jane on the phone.
Santa, in a deepened voice, explained to Jane how there would be no presents on Christmas morning to children who fought with their sisters. He would be watching and expect that things would be better from now on.
Jane solemnly nodded to each of Santa’s remarks, and silently hung the phone up, when he was done.
After a long moment, mom asked,“What did Santa say to you, dear?”
And in almost a whisper, Jane, sadly, but matter-of-factly, stated, “Santa said he won’t be bringing toys to my sister this year.”
Jane was three, and already had it figured out! It’s not about me! I can’t be held responsible for what I do! It must be somebody else. If Santa is not going to give a gift because we are fighting, it’s my sister’s fault, not mine!
What does this have to do with the Torah? Everything! B’Chukkotai brings the book of Leviticus to an end. The opening (and shorter section) of the parasha consists of a series of blessings which will come if we follow God’s law. Then the tochecha (the admonition) takes over, detailing a much longer series of devastating curses which will result if do not follow the law. According to tradition, these curses are chanted rapidly and “under the breath” (in a soft, hard to hear tone) during a single long reading. We don’t like to listen to the curses, and in some synagogues, it is difficult to even find someone to read them. Yet, there is wisdom in their placement at the end of Leviticus, the book of Torah most concerned with holiness.
B’Chukkotai is not simply about divine reward and punishment, it is about human agency. Rabbi Plotkin shares the story of Jane because it exemplifies why we need this parasha: our actions have consequences, and we are responsible for the choices we make. Put differently, our choices and actions create consequences which we experience regardless of whether we take responsibility or not. So, if we want to have any sort of influence over what comes back our way, we need to take responsibility for choosing well. This is the beginning of Jewish mindfulness as a practice. The more attention we pay to how we make decisions and how we take action in our lives, the more agency we gain over what we do.
However, our responsibility extends far beyond ourselves. The point is not just to act for our reward and to avoid punishment; in the kind of just community Torah commands we also take responsibility for each other. If we see a wrong, we are required to right it. If we witness a crime, we cannot claim to be innocent bystanders. Either we act to stop or at least to report the crime, or we enable the crime to happen.
Whether we like it or not we are responsible – and that means we have the power to bring great pain or great blessing to the world.
As we conclude the book of Leviticus and contemplate how to bring more holiness into our lives, but one question remains: how shall we choose?