This week’s Torah portion is one of the most difficult to deal with. It’s so hard to take that when it’s read during the Torah service, the reader whispers the words instead of chanting them aloud.
It starts off mildly enough: “If you follow my laws and observe my commandments and do them” (Lev. 26:3) and continues with 10 verses – note the number – of wonderful blessings, many of them having to do with abundance. But if we don’t do as we’re told, we’re given 30 verses of dreadful curses.
Both the blessings and curses are about doing the right thing, or not doing the right thing. There’s no mention of the bad things we’re not supposed to do.
In other words, the Torah isn’t warning us about the things we shouldn’t do. It’s telling us what it wants us to do, the behaviors that it wants us to choose. And it acknowledges that we have a choice.
An early midrash noticed that the word for laws in the first verse, hukkim, can be translated to mean inscriptions, or engravings. The Sefat Emet (a 19th century Jewish thinker) took this idea and said that the pathways to God are imprinted upon the human soul.
And the word for follow, teilchu, is from the root word meaning to walk. This gives us a new understanding of the opening verse; instead of reading “if you follow my laws…” we can read “if you walk in my inscriptions [on your soul]…”
This idea of an inscription upon us is echoed in Song of Songs, “Let me be a seal upon your heart,” in which the lovers – understood in our tradition to be God and Israel – promise to never forget one another. Similarly, we are told in Deuteronomy to “circumcise the foreskin of our heart” (Deut. 10:16) which Rashi understands to mean that we should remove whatever closes our hearts to God’s words.
This idea of God’s desire being carved onto us opens the door to pathways of blessing to find and rediscover. As the Sefat Emet said, “Each [person] has certain particular paths to walk.” By following our own path, by being true to ourselves, we can find our way to a place of blessing.
Tom Brayshaw said:
I am a life-long Methodist although my school class was always about 30% Jewish. With that much interaction, respect and understanding come naturally. The interaction was constant. Presently I am teaching a Sunday school class that is of mature (60+) adults. All of them are well educated and the format is discussion of biblical and contemporary subjects. By accident we have been looking at Leviticus, “the most used and abused” Hebrew Bible book by so many American Protestants. I used your column “Pathways of Blessing” today. The question which one of the class members asked was “how is the sacrificial language handled today?” While last week’s “Loving God” was helpful, do you have a more extensive answer?