“If you don’t come downstairs by the time I count to three, you’re not watching TV!” I know I’m not the only parent who resorts to bribes and threats more often than I care to admit. Despite overwhelming evidence that bribes and threats aren’t an effective motivator, we continue to rely on them.
So at first glance, Behukkotai sets up a familiar trope of reward and punishment, where God is the parent and we are the children. If we behave (follow God’s laws), we’ll be rewarded (with rain, a good crop, and peace in our land). And if we do not behave as expected, punishments will abound.
In that frame, it would be easy for to write off this parsha, as science tells us that keeping kosher doesn’t cause the rain to fall, and not coveting our neighbor’s wife doesn’t produce a good crop. Although, not coveting, plus a good fence, might actually keep the peace between your neighbors…
And that’s the point. It would be a mistake to read Behukkotai as a list of rewards and punishments. Behukkotai is about natural consequences, and the beautiful possibilities that result from making the right choices that God is steering us towards.
If we stop abusing our planet, then perhaps the rain will fall when it is supposed to, the sea levels won’t rise, and the polar ice caps won’t melt. All of which would certainly lead to the land yielding produce and the trees bearing fruit (Leviticus 26:4).
If we take care of the vulnerable in our society, more people will be able to sleep without fear and eat until they are satisfied (Leviticus 26:5). If we remember that everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, we’ll have fewer wars and more peace in the land (Leviticus 26:6).
And perhaps, if we cease from work (put the technology away and encounter one another) on Shabbat, we’ll be fruitful and multiply – yes, literally, but also figuratively (Leviticus 26:9). If we spent more time finding the humanity in one another, we’d spend less time making policies that destroy lives.
In other words, if we follow God’s laws, we might have a chance at the kind of world Behukkotai holds out as a beautiful reward. And I, for one, would love the chance to experience that.
Rabbi Rachel Silverman, Temple Israel of Sharon