The Unbearable Lightness of “If” (Bechukotai)

By Reb David

If we are deeply honest, we might admit that spiritual life asks of us a profound integrity. If we tune into our complex interplay of experience, emotion, thought and belief, we find that the word “God” sometimes seems hollow because no limited word can depict limitlessness. If we are discerning, we may encounter unbearable lightness in the promises of this week’s Torah portion (Bechukotai):

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit (Lev. 26:3-4).

If you do not obey Me and observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it (Lev. 26:14-16).

If, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold … and I will break your proud glory (Lev. 26:18-19).

If [thereafter] they atone for their iniquity, then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land (Lev. 26:41-42).

imgresIf we take monotheism seriously, our embrace of the Oneness we feebly call “God” places God causally into the flow of our lives. If our faith holds God responsible for what happens, then we must enter the thicket of the so-called “theodicy” question: can God be omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and benevolent (all-good) when bad things happen to good people? If we’re transparent about this question, we sense that sometimes there are no “rains in their season” (Lev. 26:4), even if we do right; and we feel the “wreak [of] misery upon [us] – consumption and fever that causes the eyes to pine and the body to languish” (Lev. 26:15-16), even if we don’t do wrong. If, conversely, we don’t hold God causally involved in the flow of our lives, then what is this “God” anyway?

If any of these sentiments resonate in our awareness, then how to understand this week’s Torah promises? If God metes out in real time what we all deserve, then do we blame the victim of illness, poverty, accident and abuse? (If you don’t have enough food, then you did something wrong?) If God’s justice comes on God’s time rather than ours, then how should we live now? (If you’re starving now, God will feed you later: just wait and see?) If God’s justice cannot be understood, then what reaction is Torah asking of us? (If war afflicts innocents, we should just have faith?) If God isn’t just, then is God worthy of us?

If these questions twist our hearts and minds in knots, then maybe it’s because language inherently fails. If we could devise any word or idea high enough to hold the reality we call “God,” it’d be the modern equivalent of a Tower of Babel, in violation of Genesis 11. If we could speak any word to convey the entirety of all truth, we’d violate Isaiah 55:8 (says God, “My thoughts are not your thoughts”). If we could see our way totally clear, we’d see God’s proverbial face – which not even Moses could do (Ex. 33:20). If any word can describe God, perhaps the best word is not a word of knowing but a word of not-knowing: Mystery. If Torah uses many stylized words of ancient prose, then theologian David Blumenthal offers us a modern translation:

Any way of talking about God will, of course, be inadequate to its subject matter.  … [A] simple moralism projected onto God is not rich enough, and … compassion is not an adequate cipher or paradigm of God.  There is a good deal of plurality in the religious traditions in their attempts to evoke something of the divine reality – kings, judges, lovers, unmoved movers, Being itself, beyond being and nonbeing… the Master of the Universe, and so on.  All inadequate (“Facing the Abusing God,” p.217).

If our limited humanity denies us absolute knowledge and certainty, however, then what to say about the promises of this week’s portion? If we are on one side of history’s veil – or wisdom’s veil, or faith’s veil – then do we give up trying to see through to the other side? If we cannot speak fully, must we stay silent?

If limited language depicts this profound question about the human condition, however, then perhaps limited language also can help us navigate it. “If” itself must become part of our spiritual awareness and spiritual vocabulary. “If,” logically speaking, expresses a condition. “If,” emotionally speaking, expresses both uncertainty and humility. “If,” spiritually speaking, invites the Mystery. “If” says, in essence, “It’s okay not to know, and we’re together in the not knowing.”

If God says “If,” it is as if God says, “It’s okay not to know, and I will be with you in the not knowing.” If this week’s Torah portion is full of ifs about the messy details of our lives – their seeming justice and injustice alike – then perhaps Torah is magnetizing all of it, all our un-knowing, all our yearning, all our faith, all our faithlessness, all our questions, all our answers, all our love, all our misery, all our everything, into a holy encounter with “if.” If God includes and transcends all, then all of our all must be included – even the uncertain and messy parts.

If God magnetizes even our messiest and most seemingly ungodly stuff into the Mystery, then “if” must be unbearably light, totally inviting, totally open. If that’s God’s call, then our answer needn’t be clear or even consistent: it’s okay not to know, for no words ever can accurately convey the fullest truth of the human heart.

If that is the hidden meaning of this week’s Torah portion, then it is fitting that it (and the Book of Leviticus) should end with “These are the commands that God gave Moses for the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Lev. 27:34). If dancing with the Mystery is the essence, then the unbearable lightness of “if” is the bright light of Torah itself.

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