Behukotaj

Av Yngve Rothschild

Introduction and Main Theme:

When I was asked to write this Dvar Torah, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Trying to grasp the essence of this Parashah, at first glance it seemed quite harsh and therefore perhaps not the ideal Parashah to discuss on the Shabbat of my son’s Bar Mitzvah. Through the process, however, I discovered it was not as black and white as it seemed at first, uncovering a palette of many more colors.

Perhaps that can serve as a reminder the Torah is so much more than we are able to grasp at first glance. Its depth is a source of continuous discovery and there is always something new to learn. Studying, scrutinizing, discussing, and dwelling on its content and why it is formulated as it is, can help us make these deeper discoveries.

Since the Torah is the platform on which our learnings rest, becoming a Bar Mitzvah is also about becoming aware of the immense opportunities to unveil the endless layers of the Torah.

So, let’s jump to the essence of Parasha Bechokotai and the essence of a Bar Mitzvah and see how they can be seen to relate to one another.

The main theme in the Parasha is the consequence of adhering to God’s law versus not adhering to it. It contains blessings for obedience to God’s commandments and warnings of curses for disobedience.

The curses are harsh, so I will try shed light on how we can view this with our 2024 glasses and still make sense of it.

Parasha Bechokotai emphasizes the importance of following God’s laws and outlines the rewards for doing so. Rewards are such as abundance, peace, and divine presence. It also describes the consequences and curses of disregarding the commandments. Curses are such as exile, disease, and famine. The rewards and curses apply not only to the individual, but also to our community. Thereby making us interdependent.

Bar Mitzvah and Responsibilities:

The term ‘Bar Mitzvah’ means ‘son of mitzvot,’ or ‘son of the commandments.’ (For girls: bat mitzvah or ‘daughter of commandments’). When a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah, he assumes responsibility for his religious obligations, and he is now considered an adult in the Jewish community. These obligations, which can be seen as the ‘rules for how we conduct our lives,’ are directly tied to the teachings of this Parasha. Because here, we learn that each one of us has to take responsibility for the good of all of us – the rewards of the right behavior and the punishment of the wrong.

Individual and Community Impact:

Each individual’s actions are important and valuable, influencing the well-being of others. In other words, none of us are alone; we all matter. While it is good to know that we have the privilege of being of influence, it also implies we all have responsibility for the well-being of others. Some like to describe it as everything affecting everything.

Perception and Influence:

We may not be fully free to control our own thoughts, as we can encounter difficulties beyond our control, such as psychological conditions or traumas. However, we can aspire to look for the light. With that attitude, we can say that we have a great deal of influence on how we see the world. Do we want to see the problems in the opportunities ahead of us, or do we want to see the opportunities in the problems? We all have our days of ineffectiveness and depressive thoughts and even days when we want to just resign and give up the world. At the same time, we all know that the only way to make the world a better place is to start with the man in the mirror. Each day, each one of us has that opportunity. There are no obvious limits to what we can create, to the positive thoughts we can spin, to the mitzvot we can do, to the opportunities we can create, and the progress we can make while we possess this life. It’s greatly a function of what each of us dare to dream each day. We all know it isn’t easy as we’re all just humans. However, most of us have the opportunity to approach the world with positive thoughts. At the same time, we can’t be holy. In fact, none of us are because none of us are perfect. But we can aspire to holiness by trying to be a bit more aware of our impact on others, by being conscientious when we make our choices, by being a bit more attentive to learning from our mistakes, etc. We can all improve on so many levels.

Daily Challenge of Being a ‘Bar Mitzvah’:

We may say that each day every one of us has the challenge of Bar Mitzvah, i.e., of being a son of the commandments. Therefore, if we all chip in and make the best of each day, do our utmost to be good people doing the right thing, we make the world a better place both for ourselves and all those around us.

Judaism is very much a family religion and community religion. You can be a Jew on your own for a while, but in the long run, you need to engage with other Jews to keep it properly alive and to develop your thoughts as you encounter new phases in life and new experiences. Life is not static, and you need to calibrate your direction. Surely, it is useful to think and reflect on your own. Some of the most beautiful and innovative thoughts have probably been developed in solitude. At the same time, we need to interact with others. I think this goes not just for Jews, but for all of mankind, we’re social animals. We can say that it is in discussions with others, when articulating our thoughts and when these are being challenged by others, that we develop new learnings and realizations. This certainly happens in a Yeshivah or over the Shabbat table with family or friends or during a Shiur. The Jewish community here in Oslo is tiny, but at least it gives us a community we can relate to, which can see us, guide us, inspire us, where we can learn and where we can feel valued as contributors, gain experiences and learnings that can benefit us, and which can help us grow. It becomes a bit of an extended family and as we know – shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow. Again, we can see how individuals and society are intertwined and interdependent for the well-being of individuals and community.

Blessings and Curses in the Torah:

Common sense in education favors using encouragement rather than threats. So, why then does the Torah also include curses as a threat? The Torah’s approach of outlining both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience reflects a multifaceted approach to moral education. While incentivizing good behavior with rewards can be effective, the Torah also recognizes the reality of human nature, including our capacity for selfishness and disobedience. By highlighting the consequences of straying from moral guidelines, it appears the Torah aims to impress upon us the seriousness of our actions and the potential harm they can cause to ourselves and others.

Moreover, the Torah’s use of blessings and curses serves to emphasize the importance of free will and personal responsibility. It acknowledges that individuals have the ability to choose their actions and that these choices have real consequences. Thereby inspiring us to do the right thing at every crossroad. The inclusion of curses underscores the gravity of these choices and serves as a reminder of the importance of ethical behavior. A child who has been burnt dreads the fire. Perhaps certain lessons, unfortunately, can only be learned the hard way?

Ultimately, the Torah’s approach is about fostering a sense of accountability and encouraging individuals to make choices that promote the well-being of themselves and their community. While the emphasis on curses may seem harsh, it reflects a deep understanding of human psychology and the complexities of moral development.

Conclusion:

From this, we can sense the Torah understands the human mind. We can therefore assume it is a strong foundation for giving guidance on how to make the best of life. Again, since we all have shortcomings, we must strive to do our best rather than to seek perfection.

As the father of a Bar Mitzvah boy, I am reminded of the famous story of Hillel and the Golden Rule. This story beautifully summarizes Judaism in a universally relatable way; An impatient man once challenged Hillel to explain the Torah while the man stood on one foot. Hillel responded, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn!’

In a similar fashion, we can say that Judaism is about aspiring to do the right thing in life, every day, especially from the time of Bar Mitzvah. And yes, it is also about understanding the consequences when we don’t. So, let’s go and learn! Every day. Better for you, me, and all of us!

Shabbat shalom!