Some 17 years ago, when I first starting writing these Random Musings, before I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and came to a both a better understanding of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc., I wrote a short thought piece about B’khukotai. Nine years ago I was tempted to re-write the piece in light of all that I had learned since I had first written it. I decided it might be more interesting to leave it as I wrote it, and add some commentary at the end. This year, I was once again tempted to re-write. This time, I might intersperse some updated thought, but I’ll try to leave things mostly intact and and even more thoughts at the end.
A Slightly Revised Random Musings Before Shabbat-B’khukotai 5757/5765-I'll Take the Hard Way
"Whoa!" I thought to myself as I read and reread B’khukotai. Now some of it makes sense. Christianity has often baffled me. What was so wrong and broken within Judaism that Paul and others had to fashion a whole new theology?
In B’khukotai, G”d tells up what will happen if we follow the commandments, and what will happen if we don't. Nevertheless, in the end, there is a built in forgiveness for our continuing obstinacy – G”d telling us that the covenant will not be abrogated, at least on G”d's part. However, the forgiveness only comes after enduring all the horrendous and increasing suffering brought upon for because of our failure to keep the holy commandments.
Perhaps Paul and his ilk were looking for a shortcut? You can have the forgiveness now - you don't have to suffer. It's just too easy. Although B’khukotai is a hard parashat for a modern liberal free thinking Jew like myself to come to terms with, I find it easier to identify with its model of forgiveness of sins after one has had to deal with the consequences of one's choice to not follow the mitzvot, as opposed to the "forgiveness first" Christian theology (which I realize I am way oversimplifying, but please allow me the liberty.) Forgive me before I sin, and what is there to restrain me from sinning? Forgive me after I have suffered the consequences of my choices, and I have to think a little harder about sinning in the first place.
[From 2014 – I realize that sinning, however one defines it, has an impact upon our own psyches. So the idea that advance forgiveness eliminates suffering is perhaps a bit inaccurate. The sinner may sense and experience forgiveness, but it’s likely they first need to feel remorse, and profess or confess their sin before they can feel forgiven. Yet some do still pervert the concept and eliminate that middle step.]
Yes-I want G”d to love me. I also want Gd” to care enough about my personal growth that I am allowed to learn through making mistakes.
Some might argue "what's the difference?" In either case, you know G”d will forgive you-the end result is the same. Is it?
Leviticus 26:39 The few of you who survive in your enemies' lands will [realize that] your survival is threatened as a result of your nonobservance. [These few] will also [realize] that their survival has been threatened because of the nonobservance of their fathers.
Now, we can get into a really deep philosophical spiral here, if we start wondering about a G”d who punishes us for wrong actions. Let's not go there today. (It's not a trip I particularly enjoy at any time, but it cant be avoided forever.) Let's just take the words at their face value - and recognize the gift the Am Yisrael has been given in forgiveness after consequences, rather than before.
Comments from 2005: My understanding of both Jewish and Christian views towards sin and G”d's forgiveness have certainly changed from 8 years ago. The comparison I offer is not only overly simplistic, but also not a representative characterization of the diversity of views on these topics within Christianity (and you thought Judaism was full of internal contradictions and inter-movement strife?) There are certainly Christians that take this somewhat simplistic view (and take advantage of it) and there remains a broad range of views on these topics in Judaism as well. Yet rabbis and ministers everywhere are working hard each and every day to counter the overly simplistic, dogmatic, and misunderstanding views of their congregants.
[2014: Is it not entirely unfair to state that being a Christian requires one to be forgiving of others. That G”d forgives is a given based on the sacrifice represented by Jesus. In Judaism, G”d can forgive humans for sins against G”d, and, at least according to what we read here in parashat B’khukotai, G”d will always eventually forgives those sins that the Jews commit against G”d. It is equally clear that Judaism requires forgiveness for sins of one human against another be dealt with by those same humans. G”d does not (cannot?) forgive the sins one human being commits against another human being. One is required to seek forgiveness of one whom they have wronged. One is required to forgive one who comes to them in sincerity and piety seeking forgiveness. (Ever practical, the rabbis tell us that after one has gone to another seeking forgiveness and has been rejected three times may consider their obligation fulfilled. In contrast, Jesus. when asked by Peter how many times he must forgive one who has wronged him, and Peter suggests seven as a fair number, responds seventy times seven, probably meaning an unlimited number of times. (Matthew 18:22.))]
[2014: Islam, too, speaks often of forgiveness. Allah is sometimes called Al-Ghaffur, oft-forgiving. Islam, unfortunately, burdened itself in regards to forgiveness, in the way that Judaism burdened itself with slavery. Jews, though former slaves, may not enslave other Jews but may enslave non-Jews and even treat them harshly. Similarly, the Quran argues strongly that Muslims must forgive other Muslims, somewhat less so for converts, and forgiveness for unbelievers, and apostates, is, in some interpretations of Islam, actually discouraged. (A lot hinges on how “unbelievers” is defined.) In some ways, Islam’s insistence upon being a believer to merit forgiveness is akin to Christianity’s insistence on acceptance of Christ.]
No matter how practitioners, scholars, and clergy spin their particular faith’s understanding of forgiveness, and G”d’s part in it, I still maintain that there are some fundamental differences in how G”d's forgiveness is ultimately realized in Jewish, Christian and Islamic understandings. Both Christianity and Islam, albeit in different ways, and again, this is over-simplified, fundamentally involve G”d in the process of forgiveness between human beings, and require only a belief or faith in G”d to receive G”d’s forgiveness.
The Torah, in this parasha, does indeed teach us that G”d will ultimately forgive the Jewish people their transgressions against G”d. Without wishing to undermine the nature of the covenant between G”d and the Jewish people, it does not say that this forgiveness will not be extended to others. It does not say that there is “no way to the Deity except through x.” It clearly says that G”d will punish the people for sinning against G”d – punish perhaps is very horrible ways. We can attempt to excuse this away as harsh rhetoric intended to scare us into obedience, or we can accept the notion that we will sin against G”d and we will be punished for it. Sins between one human and another are another matter entirely.
I do want to give a nod to the something in the parasha, in the midst of the litany of horrors which could befall the Jewish people for their transgressions. It is this sense of justice in the idea that the land will lie fallow to make up for the years when the Jewish people had sinned against G”d by failing to follow the laws for shmita (the sabbatical year) and Yuval (Jubilee.) In the midst of the catalog of calamities (a title I have also used to refer to the litany of punishments in parashat Ki Tavo) is this notion of balance. It’s not enough, in my opinion, to balance the overly negative and somewhat over-the-top list of punishments to be meted out to the Jewish people for their sins against G”d, but it is a place upon which to hang my hook and maybe pry a little into the layers in my never-ending search to redeem the irredeemable texts which litter the Torah.]
[2014: When it comes to forgiveness,] for me, the "Jewish way" if there can be said to be such a thing, is the one that resonates for me. It still feels a little "harder" and more insistent on consequences and personal/communal responsibility. In fact, is it this very communal dimension that I believe truly separates the Jewish understanding from our co-religionists. (Though it can be easily argued that "catholic with a small c" Christianity is no less communal than Judaism, and that Judaism, too, has its own understandings of "personal relationships" with G”d. Different sides of the same coin? Who knows? I've often felt that G”d allows multiple human religions to exist because G”d understands different learning styles and the concept of differentiated education, and this multiplicity of religions allows each person to find the method that works best for them.)
And with that interesting thought, as I have done twice before, I bid you [Shabbat] Shalom for this week.
Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened.
A sweet Shabbat to you all.
©2014 (portions ©1997 and 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
B'har B'khukotai 5773 - In Smite Of It All
B'har-B'khukotai 5772 - Scared of Leaves (Redux & Revised 5769)
B'har-B'khukotai 5770 - Bad Parenting 301
Behar-Bekhukotai 5769- Scared of Leaves?
Behar-Bekhukotai 5767-A Partridge in a Tree of Life
Behar-Bekhukotai 5766-Only An Instant
Behar-Bekhukotai 5764 - The Price of Walls
Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out Gd's Way)