(Courtesy: Jewish Exponent by Rabbi Danielle Stillman)
In this week’s portion, Behukotai, we are challenged with understanding the balance between free will and destiny, between human responsibility and God’s. The portion presents a God who rewards good deeds (in this case, following the commandments) and punishes disobedience. This puts the burden of responsibility for ourselves and the world into human hands. If we act properly, all will go well in the universe: The rain will come in its season, and we will have enough to eat. If we don’t act well, and reject God’s laws and commandments, we shall fall sick, our enemies will dominate us, the land will fail: The list of curses goes on and on.
This formula seems to indicate free will for humans. We are in charge of our destinies: If we act correctly, life will be good. This seems to have some truth to it. If we take care of our bodies, exercising and eating well, we stay healthier. If we take care of the earth, the rain is much more likely to come in its season. This is free will reigned in by responsibility and consequences.
Except when we don’t stay healthier. Or there is a terrible accident. Or an earthquake occurs instead of rain. In his collection of writings, Eyes Remade for Wonder, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of a tailor who sits at his kitchen table the night before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, making a list with two columns. On one side, he lists his sins: “Cheated Goldman out of a pair of trousers”; and on the other side, he lists God’s “omissions”: “Little girl died of diphtheria.” He realizes that for every sin he had committed in the past year, God had done one, too, and he suggests to God that they let each other off. With this suggestion, the tailor is asking the question: If God can’t promise a reward for good behavior every time, then is it acceptable for God to punish us for our sins?
The story then continues. The tailor explains his list to his rabbi, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, and the rabbi responds in anger: “You fool! You had Him and you let Him go!”
This brings up yet another theological query. Can humans hold God accountable for the terrible things that happen to innocent people? At the very least, Levi Yithak is suggesting that righteous anger at God can be a call to action for humans. We may not be able to control the undeserved tragedies that take place in the world, but we can express our anger about them, and use that energy to take more responsibility ourselves, to control more of what we are able to control.
Sometimes, this won’t work. Sometimes, all we will be able to do is acknowledge the pain that exists. This acknowledgement is reflected in the gesture of reading the curses of this portion quickly, in a low voice at synagogue. Even as the portion suggests that the curses are a deserved consequence of human actions, the quiet recitation of them indicates that people have always known that this does not always square with reality. Sometimes, all we can do is be a comfort to those in pain, and assure them that it is indeed not their own fault.
As we end the book of Leviticus with this portion, we are left with as many questions about the proper relationship between humans and God as when we began. Yet one thing is clear: Humans and God are in a multifaceted partnership, a give and take that is both comforting and challenging. This will never change.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.