Managing history

Managing history

Bechukotai | Leviticus 26:3-27:34

This final week of Leviticus is called “The Sabbath of Blessing” — a euphemistic reference to the portion’s content, the curses said to await Israel should they fail to keep God’s commandments. The logic is as simple as it is unpalatable: God controls history and punishes us for noncompliance with God’s will. 

This thinking has been applied wholesale to Jewish tragedy — from the destruction of the Temple in antiquity to the Holocaust in our own time — suffering as divine punishment for sin. 

I can think of few ideas as pernicious as this one. It is morally reprehensible to blame the Holocaust’s victims for their agony. And what kind of God would mete out such punishment? And imagining God as a puppet-master manipulating the Romans or the Nazis is a profanation of the very word “God.” 

Besides the “Sabbath of Blessing” euphemism, we mitigate the pain of this parsha by customarily reading the curses quietly and rapidly; some people even leave the synagogue so as not to hear them. 

It is thought that by minimizing attention to the curses we prevent their coming true. But just the opposite conclusion ought to follow, the Chatam Sofer says. If we take the warnings seriously, they should be recited especially loudly and clearly, to make everyone hear and heed them! 

Yet we continue to slur over the verses. I think we should — because the very idea of God bringing curses upon us is so reprehensible; it is an embarrassment to God to imagine that God tweaks history to kill Jews — or anyone else. 

If, however, the point of reading the curses is to instill fear of God and we no longer think that way, we need to redefine “fear of God.” Here we can turn to Nehemia Polen’s discussion of Esh Kodesh, the sermons of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto. 

Shapira saw first-hand the tortures endured under the Nazis; fear of punishment was all around him, yet he hardly preached associating God with the Nazis! Having to face up to the theology that assumed the hand of God in history, he concluded that “fear of divine punishment” is just a lower understanding of a loftier goal: attaining the awe that comes from comprehending “God’s grandeur.” 

The parsha’s curses came from a time when imagining God as a micromanager of history was the best way to enforce the lesson of a God far enough beyond our ken to evoke awe. Now we have other ways — like the sheer force of numbers: our Earth that goes back 4,000,000,000 years or the Solar System that is 14,000,000,000 years old!

The awesome recognition of a God beyond ourselves is especially necessary today, given the possibility that we are likely, otherwise, to imagine we are God — and do whatever we want, even to the point of destroying the world. 

So we should hear the curses muttered, even at breakneck speed, to remind us that God does not actually manage history — so it must be true that we do. And we had better take that responsibility seriously before there is no history left to manage. 

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