Drash on Parashat Bechukotai 2018
Cantor David Bentley
Beit Or v'Shalom and Temple Shalom
Brisbane and Gold Coast, Queensland
This week’s parshah is a particularly difficult one for modern readers. The bulk of it is a long list of the rewards and punishments, or if you prefer, the positive and negative consequences, that will be visited upon us by God: rewards if we act in accordance with Torah, and punishments if we do not.
A reward/punishment theology is one that I personally find problematic. I don’t believe that God necessarily works that way. And after the unthinkable enormity of the Shoah, where so many good people suffered and died for reasons that had nothing to do with how well they followed Torah, it is hard for me to see how such a theology can retain the slightest shred of credibility.
Scratch only a little below the surface and we immediately start to find more: the fact that the parshah lays out these alternatives, is a clear indication that we have free will, the ability to choose.
While I don’t believe that choosing to act in accordance with the legal code laid down in the Torah will necessarily bring me a reward from the hand of a grateful deity, I do believe that acting in accordance with Torah will bring about its own rewards, in the form of a better life, a more meaningful life, one that is connected to good people and filled with moments of joy, deep satisfaction, and achievement. Nor can I lay too much emphasis on the reward of knowing I’m doing the right thing. That is, to me, the greatest reward for following Torah.
But of course we do not live the teachings of the Torah merely for our own betterment or even for the sense of doing it right. We are told again and again that we are to make the world around us into a better place, to engage in works of Tikkun Olam. We have the free will to engage or not in such acts: but when we do, this too adds to our satisfaction and sense of achievement and often, perhaps surprisingly, can give rise to unexpected joys.
So this week’s parshah tells us to use our free will, our ability to choose, to make choices that will improve the world, to do the work of Tikkun Olam.
As I reflect on this message within this week’s parshah I must also note the tragic, untimely passing of Rabbi Aaron Panken a few days ago. Most readers of this column will not have heard of him before, but he has had an influence on our region. For the last four years he was the President of Hebrew Union College where I and many of my colleagues here in the Australasian region went for our religious training. I personally had a number of interactions with him when I was a student on the New York campus, during his period as Dean of Students in the mid-1990s. His life’s work exemplified Tikkun Olam in far-reaching and lasting ways. I encourage you to read this account of his achievements: