If/Then is the (now closed) Broadway musical by Brian Yorkey that tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth. It tracks her choices and follows two possible futures for the heroine as she moves back to New York City for a fresh start. When she arrives she meets friends, one of whom suggest as part of her remaking herself she should go by a new name: ‘Liz.’ Another friend suggests she readopt her college nickname, ‘Beth.’ The play then follows Beth or Liz into their different futures.
The idea of the play, and of Parashat Bechukotai, is that we make our world. IF we are faithful to our promises, IF we heed the voice of God and the commandments, IF we are committed to being fair and honest and selfless and decent…THEN we will be blessed and treasured and have the kind of just and holy society that God wants for us. The kind we want for ourselves.
And IF not…THEN.
On one level this message is very empowering. There is no one else who is responsible. If we want a good and righteous world, then we can make it happen. If we don’t want to tolerate the opposite, the future is within our power to control.
But the danger of this simple message is twofold. One danger lies in the fact that things don’t always turn out as we hope, no matter how hard we try. Bending the arc of justice from oppression to freedom is not as simple as changing your name. The other danger in this answer is that believing that people always get what they deserve can make us hard-hearted in the face of suffering. If ‘they’ are not smart, healthy, or rich enough- then ‘they’ are obviously at fault. IF/THEN can be a convenient cover for not caring.
Perhaps the best lesson of the Parasha is a reminder of the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot. There are so many things in the world which we cannot control. Our goodness or wickedness is no guarantee of perfect rewards or punishments from God or the universe. We are not able to predict or understand the world in such a simple and direct way. But the one crucial thing we can control, we can have perfect understanding of, is our own inner spiritual life. “All is in the hands of Heaven except for Fear of Heaven.” (Ethics 3:11)
The truest IF/THEN of Jewish belief is that if you work to be the kind of person whom you admire…if you make decisions which are based on the truest values you hold dear…then you will be blessed to become the person you hope to be. You will be the embodiment of all you seek. The power you hold in your hand, no matter what comes, is to ensure that your name be a blessing.
As Anne Frank put it, “Our very lives are fashioned by choice. First we make choices. Then our choices make us.”
Rabbi Ron Fish, Temple Israel, Sharon