Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Muse: B'chukotai 2009

President Shimon Peres once commented that what distinguished the Hebrews in the ancient Near East from their precursors (regarding their view of history) was the concept of “process”. The Hebrews saw that history was a work in progress and man’s role in it would unfold as a part of a process. This was a radically new idea. Those in the ancient Near East hitherto believed that history unfolded only to be revealed as a cycle that repeats itself in one version or another; that progress couldn’t be made because history unfolded in a cycle, destined to be repeated over and over.

Accordingly, we Jews believed then as we do now that history is revelatory, unfolding with a linear progressive arch. Thus the world moves in a forward pitch; it has a beginning, a present and a future. In the Jewish world, that is, a world which is linear progressive, we can choose; we are obligated to make choices. In the ancient near eastern cultures where history is cyclical there are no choices; one has to satisfy and pacify the gods; there is a determinism that will ultimately dictate ones path.

The concluding verses of Behar which serves as an introduction to B’chukotai drives home this point when in chapter 26 verse 1 we are cautioned regarding idol worship. Worshiping God is the Jewish way because in so doing one recognizes that God is the God of the past the present and the future as opposed to idols, the work of man – stagnant. Our God and belief system is dynamic. Our text reads “If you follow my decrees and observe my commandments…”we will be blessed (Leviticus 26:3). Chukim are those rules and laws between man and humanity whereas mitzvoth are those commandments that define the relationship between man and God. Therefore the text really means that if one follows those rules which govern relationships between man and humanity and observe the mitzvoth between man and God, one will have personified the ideal of being “created in the image of God”.

The verse cited in Leviticus 26:3 is phrased conditionally. What if one doesn’t observe the chukim and mitzvoth? The tochacha comes to tell us of the terrible things that can and will befall us as a people if we do not observe God’s laws. Unlike those of the ancient near east who had no choices, we are presented with options in our text; the choice is ours to make. We can be blessed and move along the linear progressive line in an arch that bring blessings and goodness or we can bring down the curses.

What becomes clear from this text is that numbers aren’t important. We as a Jewish nation are small in number in comparison to others such as Muslims. Our text however tells us that this isn’t a numbers game. If we do what we are supposed to do than numbers won’t factor in (we have been witness to this repeatedly since 1948). We will be blessed. Parenthetically, this is what is meant when we say that we are the chosen. It doesn’t mean that we are any better than any other people. It means that we were the first to understand that we live by the choices we make. We aren’t destined to live in a vicious cycle as the pagan faiths of the ancient near east would have us believe. Our eyes were opened to the reality that we can make choices. Our text offers us those choices and we chose to be chosen – to observe the chukim and mitzvoth.