B’Chukotai. One of the Torah portions that people avoid like the plague- (literally -like the chapters about the plagues). Here is a vision of G-d that we don’t want to embrace. The passages are full of blessings and curses. Do as I say and all will be well. Ignore me, and your world will crumble.
Why do we have so much trouble with this? Is it because we don’t want to believe in a G-d that would be so heartless as to destroy us and our future generations if we stray from the path? Or is it that the responsibilities are so overwhelming that we think we will fail, and somewhere deep down inside we fear that in some way the threats might be true?
Do we believe in divine retribution?
We certainly do feel that our actions, or inaction, have consequences. Highlighted in our recent strategic plan, social good is one of the three cornerstones of Women of Reform Judaism. At the time I am writing this I am getting ready to go to WRJ’s first-ever Social Justice Conference. Two hundred of my sisters will join me, firm in the belief that we can make a difference. We will gather to learn how to help affect change regarding, among other topics, pay equity, MeToo, poverty, reproductive rights, and climate change.
Rabbi Dalia Marx wrote a wonderful d’var regarding this parashah in which she focuses on walking, referring to this translation from B’chukotai
"If you follow [walk with] My laws," says God, you will be blessed and "but if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments" dreadful curses will fall upon you"
To me, this recalls Rabbi Heschel’s famous phrase about “praying with our feet.” Our Reform sisters have been joining in social justice marches from our inception in 1913 regarding women’s right to vote up to the present day, with participation in partnership with many movements, including March for Our Lives and some the recent Women’s Marches. These are the ways we are G-d’s partner in bringing about blessings on this earth.
Now, let’s look at the “curses.” Just reading the partial list of workshops above can make us feel defeated- there is so much to fix! However, we are commanded not to stand idly by. We are reminded of the quote from Pirkei Avot attributed to Rabbi Tarfon “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist.” So, we know we must participate, and we know we are only human and can only do so much. It doesn’t really make the curses any less horrific, does it?
Perhaps these threats would be easier to understand if we boil them down to a few essential words?
What is the very basic plea from G-d here? It is the same as the prayer of the immigrant, the victim of gender-specific violence, the myriad of life forms facing extinction due to climate change. Two simple words-
Everyone’s fundamental wish is to be heard, really listened to.
We all need to feel that we have value. In addition to our Social Justice Conference, WRJ has unveiled another new project this year, our Listening Campaigns. Just as we fail our G-d and the outside world we live in by ignoring them, our women’s groups are also doomed to extinction if we do not listen to our members. Using the techniques discussed in the Listening Campaigns group and Listening Campaign PowerPoint found on yammer, your sisterhood leadership can find out what really matters to your members and create the sisterhood that has the most value to your members.
The contractual arrangement that G-d describes in Leviticus holds value in our relationship with a spiritual power, our fellow living creatures, human and otherwise, and our WRJ sisters. “If you respect me, consider me, and value my position we can create something beautiful together. If you devalue or ignore me, all may be lost.”
I am proud to be a part of this organization that truly believes that what we do matters, and that we must give time and thought to what matters to others as well. We don’t need G-d to punish us if we’re not doing the right thing, we punish ourselves by creating both spiritual and physical desolation, a drought in the heart and the land – it is the work we do out of our love and compassion for each other that quenches our souls and our planet.
Madi Hoesten is the Vice President of Affiliate Services for Women of Reform Judaism. An active member of Congregation Kol Tikvah Sisterhood in Parkland FL since moving to Florida in 1999, she has been on her sisterhood and/or her temple board in some capacity since joining the sisterhood.