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“Consequences,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

May 12, 2023 | 14 Iyyar 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

The Book of Leviticus comes to an end this week with an addendum to the holiness code offered earlier in the book. In those previous chapters, we found ways to be holy by loving our neighbor as ourself. (19:18). In these final chapters, we discover that blessings will pour forth upon us if we follow and observe the divine commandments and instructions in the eleven glorious verses of peace, prosperity, and safety.

Then 42 verses follow filled with escalating terms of admonition: defeat, disease, infertility, invasion, famine, pestilence, desolation, and exile. The consequences of not following the commandments and instructions produce dire results. This section is known as “the rebuke,” Tochocha in Hebrew.

This is the Torah’s way of offering a choice: the carrot or the stick?
Or is it?

Blessings certainly feel more attractive than reproach and would seem as a more likely motivation for the choices we can make regarding behavior and following commandments. But what if the reprimand is more about criticism and a willingness to call out what might be wrong? Can’t more strength come to those who are willing to turn the mirror on themselves? We have the ability to own our faults. Might the Torah be saying that we should not cower away from a readiness to name when we do not do what is right? How do we right a wrong if we don’t name it, even if it is about us?

Rabbi David Wolpe recently wrote that we hesitate to criticize ourselves. He said:

Why is it so wrenching to criticize one’s own? In part because you do not only challenge beliefs, you also lose allies and friends. It is hurtful to those with whom you share community to be the one who rebukes.

Knowing this makes the Torah that much more powerful and impressive. Here is scripture that is relentless in its criticism of the very people to whom it is addressed. The prophets, overflowing with love of Israel, nonetheless lambast them for their moral flaws. There is plenty of criticism of other nations, of course; but we take it that much more seriously from a tradition that is ready to be honest and direct at home as well.

As we close Leviticus with its rituals of sacrifice and holiness, of impure and pure, let us open ourselves to our very human imperfect nature and know that our tradition summons us to find within ourselves our very best.

The book of Numbers which follows will provide us many opportunities, but for now, we end and bless.

Let us be strong and

Rabbi Elaine Zecher