This is the kind of sedra that gives God a bad name — literally. It is one of two sections in Torah known as “klalot” (“curses”). The better-known one arrives at the end of Deuteronomy; this one is smaller but does the trick. So frightening was it for Jews of times past that they named it, euphemistically, parshat brachot “the reading of blessings,” the opposite of what it actually is. People read it quietly, barely loud enough to be heard. The Chofetz Chaim knew places where congregants left the room rather than have to contemplate the terror of God’s wrath that the sedra warns against.
It starts off positively enough: If we follow God’s mitzvot, we will get abundant crops, peace in our land, and God’s presence among us.
But it quickly shifts to the opposite pole of possibility. In return for disobedience, says God, “I will wreak misery among you. Consumption and fever.” We will have “skies like iron and earth like copper,” so that no rain falls and nothing grows. Wild beasts will eat our children, enemies will ravage us. Our cities will fall and we will be carried off as captives.
God mitigates the punishment in the end. Enslaved in exile, we will repent and, humbled by chastisement, we will find God returning to us again.
But that is poor comfort. We finish this final sedra in Leviticus as we do the other four books of Torah, by shouting together, “Hazak hazak v’nit’hazek,” “Be strong, be strong; let us be strengthened.” We hardly need that cry elsewhere, but here we do. We’d better be strong if parshat Behukotai has its way.
The objection that we can avoid punishment by being obedient to God misses the deeper point — the very idea that we ought to believe in a God who rewards and punishes like a petulant parent. Insisting on that childish view should be a sin because it only encourages atheists among us. On occasion, tradition itself wondered about this view — asking, for example, why God promises reward for mitzvot that ought to be considered sufficient reward in and of themselves. The reverse should be true as well: If the mitzvot are good for us, then failure to do them should be punishment enough.
But by and large, critique of the biblical notion of such a zealous God is the result of modern temperament. To begin with, the world patently does not work the way the sedra assumes. Good people are not universally rewarded; bad people are not always punished. More important, modern sensibilities reject this ancient notion of human beings as perpetually backsliding children and God as all-powerful disciplinarian.
If we read it in a whisper, it ought not to be because we fear the curses coming true, but because we find the reading an embarrassment to God, who must surely be objecting: “I don’t work that way. That’s how they understood Me 2,000 years ago, perhaps, but it’s time to abandon this fourth-grade picture of Me.”
We still read it anyway, I know. As with any sedra, there are lessons to be learned from individual verses within it. But here is the global lesson from the reading as a whole: It reminds us of how far we have come from our mistaken beliefs of years gone by.
We recall our less-than-lofty past to prevent our easily returning there — when, for example, we thought mental illness was madness, or hysteria a women’s disease that could be cured by hosing the victim down with ice-cold water. Similarly, we remember slavery in America or Nazism in Europe to make sure neither ever happens again. Remembering old theologies is no different.
I know it is unfashionable in academic circles that call themselves post-modern, but I still believe in a steady march of progress toward a more enlightened day. I read our sedra to recall our childhood beliefs and see how far that march has taken us in the way we look at God. As the species created to be at the cutting edge of the evolutionary spiral, we are responsible for standing in the long line of philosophers from Saadiah and Maimonides to Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan, and reconceiving God as a live possibility among us.
Hazak hazak v’nit’hazek. We need strength — not to get through the curses without them happening, but to emerge from the reading committed to dispensing with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment. The issue isn’t God’s dispensing justice to us, but our doing justice to God.