Sunday, May 28th | 8 Sivan 5783

May 11, 2023 9:57 am

Shabbat Behar & Behukotai: Despite Challenges, We Must Look on the Bright Side of Life

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The book of the Torah called Leviticus is also called the Book of Purity. It deals with the relationship between human beings and God, the rituals we should follow to ensure that we think of Hashem in our daily lives, and the role of the priesthood in ancient times. But it also deals with how we should relate to other people by giving us a list of laws that encourage us to be better and more conscious about what we do to others. How we treat other human beings is as important as how we relate to God.

Towards the end of the book comes the Tochecha — the Rebuke. This is a list of all the good things that can come about if we behave well, and a longer list of the awful things that will happen if we allow idolatry and corruption to rule. It is as if the Torah is saying, “I know you are going to do wrong things and make mistakes, and as a result, you’re going to suffer.” And life may well be terrible as a result. In some communities, the custom is to read these curses very quickly in a low-key and hushed voice.

And yet despite all the awful things that may happen to us, there is hope. We know that it’s also possible to make life better by being a good person and helping others. I don’t think this is meant to be a guarantee that if we’re good, then life will be better for us. But it is the best approach to life we can have. It is up to us to make our lives more tolerable no matter what goes on around us.

The Torah is talking to the Israelites in general, to the nation — and that is why it ends with the promise that despite our journey going off the tracks, in the end, God will never completely abandon us and will ensure we survive: “Despite all this, even when they are in the lands of their enemies I will neither reject or obliterate them nor cancel my covenant with them”(Leviticus 26:44). We will survive.

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That is the national message. But how are we expected to respond in our own lives? For this, we need to turn to the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. It starts very cynically by asking what’s the point of life. We’re all going to suffer to some degree, and we will die. So why bother?  The book points out all the negative aspects of life, which is what we humans tend to do. We tend to see the cup half empty instead of half full.

But Ecclesiastes says seven times that the most important thing is to be positive, to look at the good things in life. Even if part of your body may be in pain at this moment, think of the parts of your body that are working well. Think of the good things you have done in life.  If you are surrounded by unpleasant negative people, look for people who are positive and good. Count your blessings, as they say. There is so much good in this world, even though it often seems so negative, and so many are willing to help. That is where we should look for support and comfort.

The author is a rabbi and writer, currently based in New York.

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