This sermon was delivered at our Saturday Morning Shabbat service on June 1st. You can watch now on Mishkan’s YouTube channel or listen on the Contact Chai podcast.

The Torah portion we read today B’chukotai, the very last section of the book of Leviticus which Ezri read so beautifully, begins with a cause-effect relationship between our behavior and the divine rewards or punishments we reap as a result. 

On the positive side:

אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land. I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. I God, who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk standing tall.”

But, on the not-so-positive side, if you do not obey, and do not observe my commandments, 

“I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. Your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues. I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. They shall decimate you, and your roads shall be deserted. You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues.

And it goes on like this, relentlessly, until finally, finally:

“Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will also remember My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, יה–ו-ה-.

Whether Jews have ever read the Torah literally is a matter of debate, but we don’t now and haven’t for thousands of years. So even when we come upon places that don’t make sense, we mine it, assuming that there are layers upon layers to be untangled, explained, challenged, revealed for their deeper meaning, even in sections that we struggle with, and the way we get there is to first ask questions. So, what questions do you have, as readers, as listeners, hearing these ancient words?

Do we really believe in divine reward and punishment? Did our ancestors? Wasn’t it clear to them that not everyone who observed Torah was rewarded and not everyone who didn’t was punished? Even on a collective level, like the level of our people, in times when Jews were observing mitzvot, we were subject to massacres and oppression. And, hey, in a time like right now when many of us don’t do quite a lot of the mitzvot, we seem to be doing pretty well. How can we make sense of this?

Rabbi Elisha Anselevits from the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, a master of Jewish philosophy and halakhah, observes immediately that one cannot, in good conscience, ascribe to a simple philosophy of divine reward and punishment for behavior, as is described here. We can’t, and the rabbis who wrote the Talmud didn’t either. They, too, saw good people suffer for no reason, and bad people prosper. The fancy religious studies word for this “theodicy,” trying to understand how there can be a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God and yet there is still evil in the world. Even if our Biblical forbears believed in a simple theology of reward and punishment for our behavior, by the time of the sages who wrote our tradition 2,000 years ago, they knew these words couldn’t be literally true, and neither do we. But, Rabbi Anselevits says, if there’s something in Torah we don’t resonate with (aka, in his case, that he thinks is bunk, but won’t say because he’s an orthodox rabbi!) then that just means we don’t understand it well enough yet and have to go deeper. Which, for those of us who want to make sense of this ancient tradition we’ve inherited, we have to do, too. 

What that deeper look like when it comes to theodicy is different for different sages over the years. One response is “the afterlife.” Jews don’t talk about it much because we tend to focus on the here and now, but it is there in our tradition. So one way of getting out of this is to decide that the afterlife is where these rewards and punishments are meted out. That way we don’t have to make sense of how this world functions or why evil people seem to mostly just skate by: they’ll get what’s coming to them in the world to come. 

Then again, many of us aren’t satisfied with that. Seems like a cop-out, and we yearn for something that we can confirm with by experience. So another option is that we don’t have the full picture. We see good people, people we love, suffer while evil people prosper. We don’t see justice for people who hurt others or the planet, but we just have to believe that there’s something bigger going on here, there are things we haven’t seen and don’t totally comprehend, and all we can do is follow a moral code, do what’s right, and believe that there is and will be justice for all of us, some way or another, in this life or maybe the next. We have faith in how little we know.

To take that even a step further, anyone see The Good Place? It’s a show that’s kind of an extended meditation on precisely these questions. At some point, the cosmic Judge, played by the brilliant Maya Rudolph, explores the complex morality of buying a tomato at the store. What used to be a simple, amoral act of planting and harvesting food in one’s own yard has become a whole moral quagmire. To buy a tomato at the grocery store calls into the moral calculus: your climate footprint (both yours and the tomato’s), labor practices in the fields and at the grocery store for that matter, the ethics of capitalism and of genetically modified food, and, if you paid on your phone, the entire mineral mining industry. Then again, you’re helping to employ scientists and farmers and store workers, and you’re eating a healthy food and nourishing your body. Buying a tomato is anything but amoral. If every interaction we have with the outside world is this fraught with moral ambiguity and we remain unwittingly complicit in systems that hurt people and the planet no matter how much good we do, how can any of us expect to find ourselves in the “Good Place”?

Alternatively, Rabbi Harold Kusher says, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, says, don’t try to answer the question “Why do bad things happen to good people.” You can’t answer that question. He says, that whole God-being-all-powerful thing? Can’t be. God is good, God knows us and everything inside and out, but can’t control everything, is not a cosmic puppet master. And even from the time of the Bible, God has never been seen that way by Jews. Even in the Torah, God is a growing, discovering, adapting character who changes alongside us. The whole benevolent/omniscient/omnipotent idea isn’t even Jewish — it’s Greek. If God could control everything happening, all of us, then all morality wouldn’t mean anything because we wouldn’t have free will! But moreover, it would be truly perverse to think about all the preventable harm in the world, both in the natural world, like sickness, and in the world of human culture, like war. A good God would prevent such things, right? The obvious Jewish example is the Holocaust, but think of our world every day, think of homelessness and the ongoing holdups preventing sensible gun laws, think of what happened on October 7th and what’s happened to people in Gaza since. What kind of God would let people do any of that, if they had the ability to prevent it? What kind of God who could prevent diseases of mind and body that plague so many of us would just let them happen rather than intervening? So that cannot be how God works.

Rabbis Kushner, and Anselevits, and many others come at this question from a different angle: Stop imagining God outside of yourself. God is not external to us, separate from us, acting ON us, but rather, the internal voice that tells us how to navigate life when, inevitably, bad things happen. Like Mr. Rogers used to say, “Look for the helpers,” look for the people who are clearing out the rubble, who are feeding people even though they themselves are hungry or scared, who are cleaning up the beach even though there will be more trash from a tailgate in Michigan showing up on the shore tomorrow. Look for the people who are going toward the pain to help and to heal when someone is going through hell. And that is a little glimpse of what heaven looks like.

So God, rather than coming down from on high to reward and punish, is the commanding voice emanating from our very lives telling us truths about existence, reminding us that heaven isn’t some reward for our behavior that is separate from how we show up, in this moment, and in the next. Rabbi Shefa Gold puts it like this:

Bekhukotai describes two different states of consciousness, which may become the lens of perception that mediate our experiences of life’s gifts and challenges. We experience heaven and hell right here on earth”.

The covenant described in our parasha is not between us and an external force dictating rewards and punishments, it’s a reminder that right action, right thought, right relationship, is the reward itself, is heaven on earth. And vice versa. 

Going back to the text, Rabbi Shefa Gold observes:

THE FIRST STATE that Bechukotai describes is what might be called “Heaven.” In this state we notice the miraculous change of the seasons and really taste the fruit of each moment. There is a sense of “enoughness” in whatever we have, and a feeling of ultimate safety, regardless of changing circumstance. In our consciousness of Heaven, we are not ruled by fear. Thus we are not overwhelmed by whatever enemy or obstacle we encounter. In this state of consciousness there is a sense of spaciousness and possibility. The Torah awakens us to the possibility of constant grace.

The flip side of this state of consciousness of course is Hell. When we are in a state of Hell, it seems that God and everyone else is against us. We are ruled by fear, every challenge we face seems impossible. We are obsessed with a nagging feeling of lack and preoccupied with the sense that something is wrong. Even when we eat we are not satisfied. In this state of Hell, even the sound of a driven leaf will frighten us and send us running. Here we feel like strangers, and life itself seems like enemy territory. In Hell, anxiety puts us constantly on the defensive, and our heart is layered over with armor, preventing us from knowing true joy.

Rabbi Gold writes that the blessing of this Parashah is helping us recognize not rewards and punishments outside of us for our behavior. Rather, Heaven and Hell are two states of consciousness in our own experience: gratitude or scarcity, forgiveness or holding a grudge, living our day-to-day lives with a sense of inner confidence or living in a state of anxiety and fear. She says, “This recognition is the beginning of our freedom. We can learn that Heaven is our true nature, and when we feel lost in Hell we can remember that grace is offered to us, and that is only a matter of time until we find a path that leads us home.”

I find that to be a beautiful and poetic way to make sense of the descriptions at the beginning of this week’s parasha.

Sebastian Junger is an ardently atheist, son-of-a-physicist best-selling author who just published book called In My Time of Dying: How I Came Face to Face with the Idea of An Afterlife. In it he describes being rushed to the ER for a ruptured aneurysm for which there’s a very low chance of survival. The doctors have made clear this is a life and death situation, he’s in immense pain, laying in the trauma bay in the hospital, and he sees a dark chasm open up in front of him. He’s scared and knows if he goes in he will not come out. And then his father, who has been dead for years, appears to him in a kind of disembodied yet palpable way, and invites him to let go to join him. “Absolutely not, you’re DEAD!” Junger thinks to himself, “I’m not joining you.”

Junger manages to survive. He eventually decides to write about his near death experience, as well as the phenomenon of near death experiences across cultures and time that are remarkably consistent with the one he had, and he examines the possible explanations neurologically, spiritually, quantum physically, mathematically, atomically. It’s all very interesting, but, at a certain point, he says, I think it’s possible we know about as much about reality as a dog knows about a TV set. Like, we have a very limited, superficial sense of it, and mostly, have absolutely no idea or even frame of reference for how to make sense of all this reality, which includes what happens to us after we die. 

And so when asked to summarize what this whole experience taught him, if this has changed the way he lives, Junger says, “None of us knows for sure that this won’t be the last day of our lives, so what are you going to do with it? If you live like that, you’ll have, in all likelihood, a good life and will act well toward others.” In others words, with no guarantees of Heaven or Hell or an afterlife to somehow balance out what happens to us or by us in this life, we’d better behave and respond to one another like we want to create Heaven on earth. 

Junger recalls a time in high school when he had to care for his father who had hypothermia on a camping trip. And then, here was his father, decades later, appearing to him to care for him in his moment of distress. Junger says,

“This is the baton that generations of human beings hand off to each other as we go around the track in life. He was like, I will take care of you when you need me most and you’re going to be taking care of me, and we just keep doing that… and you know, that is salvation. That is salvation. Whether we are just biological beings and we end utterly and completely when we die and it’s a completely physical universe, and has no transcendent meaning whatsoever… Or if there’s something more that we’re connected to… the fact that we take care of each other when we need each other most, that’s what saves us psychologically and physically, that’s what makes life worth living, and it may frankly be the most essential component of existence. So do not miss out on it. Do not miss out on the moment, like right now is all you get. You don’t get the past and you don’t get the future you get right now and it’s all you’re ever going to get:  do not spend it on your phone! Do not spend it watching TV. Be here right now! That’s life! Having almost died that is the only way to live that honors this extraordinary freakshow that is the universe.”

He closes out his interview by sayings,

“No person in the world knows that this is not the last day of their life. None of us. None of us know. So, given that it could be, who do you want to be the last day of your life? What virtues do you want to represent on the last day of your life? I’m guessing you won’t be on your phone that much. I’m guessing you will not harbor grudges. I’m guessing you’ll be kind and loving to people and appreciative of everything. Weirdly, those are all pro-social behaviors that, if we all did them all the time, would save our society and our planet.”

When he looked over this draft, Rabbi Steven added: “Care less about what people think, take bold action, take risks, stand up for what feels right and what you believe in, go against the grain, do the scary thing. All of it.” 

May we learn the lesson of this week’s parasha, of the blessing of heaven and the curse of hell, that lay squarely in our hands to create in this world for ourselves and for one another. May we create a little more heaven.

Shabbat shalom.