It’s not easy being 9. And my 9 year old was having a tough time at school this week. Her best friend moved away last summer and some days it’s just tough finding where one fits in, particularly with the social dynamics girls seem to operate. It’s heart-breaking when your child is unhappy due to loneliness or exclusion. There doesn’t seem a way to fix it when one isn’t there. But my gorgeous daughter astonished when I went to kiss her good night after a particularly rough day this week. ‘Today was one day that has now passed, and it’s gone, there will be more days that are better’. Having felt a bit broken hearted by her sadness, this beautiful nugget of wisdom made my heart want to burst!
And it has struck me this week, as I have read through our Torah portion, that her wisdom is a bit of what we all need from time to time. The theology of Bechukotai is in many ways troubling: If you obey God, and live as good people, nothing bad will happen to you. If you disobey and are evil, you will be punished. My discomfort with it reminds me of a nursery rhyme my kids used to sing at their Jewish nursery:
Twinkle Twinkle Kochavim, High up in the Shamayim, If you say Shema Tonight, everything will be alright, if you say shema today, everything will be OK.
This just doesn’t play out in our day to day experience. We all know that things aren’t always ok, and bad things do happen to good people. No one is perfect, but very few deserve the curses of punishment offered by our ancestors understanding of how God works in this week’s portion. It is, if you like, the oldest human question. One which scholars, philosophers and clergy have found many many ways of answering.
3 weeks ago, on March of the Living, I stood at a site in Poland called Markova, where the actions of righteous gentiles throughout that region had been memorialised. The Holocaust survivor who was travelling with us that day, Agnes, had mentioned when telling us her story that Judaism was an incredibly powerful and important part of her life, but God did not come into it. So I was a little astonished as we wandered around the Markova memorial, to hear another rabbi attempting to school Agnes in the idea of Theodicy – the theological challenge that exists if one is to believe that God exists, and is all powerful and that evil is real. That is another sermon for another day, but if nothing else it takes an incredible sense of one’s own faith to try and convince a survivor to rethink her belief in God.
For me, what we are reading in our torah portion is an encounter with the ways our ancient ancestors tried to understand the reality of their world and their experiences. Perhaps knowing that pretty much everyone sins made it easy to ascribe bad things happening to bad behaviour. But as uncomfortable as this kind of theology makes me, perhaps there is some bigger truth to it.
Rather than reading it as a comment on individual behaviour, like the middle section of the Shema, this passage perhaps is about our collective behaviour as a society. If we create a society that can live harmoniously with creation, that gives space for both creativity and production as well as rest and healing, that cares for its most vulnerable members as well as honouring those of great achievement. It is likely that our global behaviours as consumers contributed to the pandemic. Similarly we saw that collectively we could create huge changes in our air quality and wildlife growth during lockdown. It is perhaps an uncomfortable truth, but the individual often suffers as a result of collective behaviour. And perhaps the opposite is also true, that collectively the decisions of a few impact many and make their lives harder, or better. Our portion is about blessings AND curses – both can be the result of the behaviours of the collective, and of the society we build together.
But sometimes, the bad things that happen to good people, or even just to averagely fine people, are impossible to explain away, justify, or make sense of. Maimonides says the world works as it does so that the laws of nature and physics can all function as they must – and sometimes that might lead to natural disasters or human suffering. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks admitted that sometimes it’s impossible to understand why something has happened, but that what we can focus on is what God wants of us when it does – to show love, compassion, generosity and care for one another.
The life that lies ahead of baby George, and the marriages that Daniel, Ilana, David and Melissa are embarking on will, inevitably, have wonderful times of celebration, and harder times which will come too. Blessings and Curses. I’m not sure how much we can blame either God or humans when these things do hit, but hoping, in the wisdom of my 9 year old Eliana, that there are better days ahead, and being able to let go of the pain that today has held, is one way of managing to come through, one day at a time. Another is knowing that while we may not be able to wave a magic wand and fix things, as a community, we are there to support, and to help provide for one another when things are harder.
And where does all this praying we’ve been doing come into it? Can we bring more blessings or avert the curses with prayer? In Hebrew prayer – Tefillah – is a reflexive verb – that means it is something we do to ourselves. That doesn’t mean God isn’t a part of our prayer life, but that the purpose of prayer is to change ourselves. When we pray for peace, we have to also be sources of peace out there, beyond the synagogue walls. When we pray for a better future, we need to be a part of making it happen. While, like Eliana, we can’t always change the reality we find ourselves in, we can use prayer, partnership, community, and our own inner resources to work for a tomorrow that is better than the today that has passed.
Whether blessings or curses have brought us to shul today, may we all be the source of blessing for those around us. Shabbat Shalom