Parshat Bechukotai begins with the words, im bechukotai teilechu – if you walk according to my chukim. If you walk in the path of these chukim, great blessings will come your way. Abundance, peace, national strength, spiritual connection, If you do not, terrible curses will befall you. Anxiety, broken pride, death, widespread famine, desolation.
Of which chukim is the Torah speaking? Literally, a chok is a rule. Some say the Torah here speaks of all the laws and rules that the Israelites received so far. But a careful review of the language of Torah shows that a chok is often a mysterious ritual that offers spiritual connection, though we don’t understand its symbolism. Some say the Torah here speaks of the mysterious rituals of spiritual connection.
But by far the most popular answer is that here the Torah speaks of the teachings just given in the immediate past parashah, Parshat Behar. What makes this the most popular answer?
The language of the Torah itself is one reason for this answer. Parshat Behar teaches: In order to be secure in the land, and to receive blessings of abundance, the Israelites must engage in two important practices. (1) A Shabbat for the land every seventh year, and (2) a Jubilee year when all slaves are freed, and all property sold returns to its original tribal owner. As soon as God explains these teachings, God says, asitem et chukotai, enact my chukim!
Another reason for this answer is the strong connection between these specific teachings and the blessings and curses that follow from not walking in thechukim.
The Parashah teaches that we should observe a Shabbat with the land. The parasha specifically says that the land itself gets to enjoy Shabbat. So let’s backtrack a moment into the weekly practice of Shabbat.
Some of the traditional positive practices on Shabbat include gathering with friends and family; relaxing instead of working or attending to household business; reading, discussing, and studying interesting things; napping in the middle of the day; enjoying good meals; making love; enjoying walks outdoors on beautiful days; praying, singing, meditating; and discovering Torah with a group of companions. These practices give us permission, space, and a framework for letting go of the worries that occupy us day to day. Shabbat helps our bodies and minds untwist and let go of accumulated tension. It’s a day of psychological and physical release, a day when we let our inner healing resources quietly flow. When we don’t create a regular Shabbat time in our lives, anxiety can accumulate, like a shadow hanging over us, tingeing everything with a sense that something unnamable is not quite right with the world. Without Shabbat, we have anxiety. With Shabbat, we have peace and spiritual connection.
Some of the traditional restrictions of Shabbat include avoiding: burning a fire; using electricity; cooking, sewing, building, or otherwise using natural objects to create artificial ones; writing on any surface; fishing; cultivated crop and garden maintenance. If you think in contemporary language, these restrictions are all carbon-footprint reducing practices. If one day a week we create no fumes, use no fossil fuels, use nothing harvested from the earth in production, kill no creatures, remake no patch of land – on that day we are giving the earth a Shabbat. We are giving the earth a day of rest and a day of partial healing. If we do this, we bring upon ourselves abundance. If we avoid it long enough, we bring about famine and desolation.
No wonder we say that Shabbat is zecher l’ma’aseh bereisheet: a reminder of the work of creation. On Shabbat we respect everything that came into being during God’s creative process. We remember that the need and capacity for renewal and rest are part of nature. We also say that Shabbat is zecher l’yitzi’at mitzrayim, a reminder that we were slaves in Egypt and we are thus not allowed to enslave anyone – even the earth.
Wisely, Torah recognizes that one day of Shabbat per week isn’t actually sufficient for individual, ecological, or social healing processes. The Israelites also get two week-long festival vacations each year – each in the seventh month following the other. The earth gets a whole year off every seventh year. And economic society gets a whole year off every seventh year and after every forty-ninth year.
During the shmittah, the sabbatical year, farmers don’t actively cultivate their fields. Because they don’t mix their labor with the yield of the fields that year, they don’t own the produce. Anyone, human or animal, who wanders by can eat. People used to earning large amounts of money don’t make any, but live off the land. People used to barely earning a living can freely eat their fill. The economic playing field is temporarily leveled.
The yovel, the fiftieth Jubilee year, permanently levels the economic playing field. Land returns to its original owner; debtors who sold themselves into slavery return to their families. No one is able to accumulate large landholdings. No one is able to accumulate a large cadre of slave-laborers. In Moses the Lawgiver, economist Henry George wrote that the Torah aims to ensure justice and equity. Torah prevents the concentration of land – capital in ancient Israel – in the hands of the few. It blocks the exploitation of cheap labor. The yovel is a mega-Shabbat, zecher l’yitzi’at mitzrayim, a practice that ends many kinds of slavery. Bring about equity, and you will have abundance and national strength. Allow inequality and exploitation, and you will have anxiety, broken pride, and death.
Torah is clear that unceasing work, overuse of the land, and extremes of wealth and poverty are not sustainable. They result in anxiety, broken pride, death, widespread famine, desolation. Yet Torah is also clear that these results are not sustainable either. Parshat Bechukotai teaches that after people are brought low, they will recognize their causal role. It will take some time, however, for them to act on their recognition. When they do, their relationship with God will be restored, their relationship with their land will be restored, and their strength as a nation, as a strong society, will return.
– Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2008