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Holiness, Not Perfection, Is Our Goal

This week’s Torah portion, B’har - B’chukotai, is made up of the last chapters in the book of Leviticus and, as our B’nai Mitzvah will share with us tomorrow, focuses on reminding the Israelites that the future strength and stability of their relationship with God depends on their behavior. If they follow God’s commandments, all will be well. But, if they don’t follow God’s commandments, all bets are off.

The Haftarah associated with this double portion comes from the book of Jeremiah. It shares a thematic message with the Torah portion- namely that God’s favor is contingent upon the people’s behavior. One commentary explains the connection between the two portions by pointing out that, “In diverse ways, the parashah and the haftarah emphasize that no aspect of life is immune to divine judgement. Inner deception yields external results that destroy one’s life on the land and outward behavior affects a person’s inner strength and spiritual resilience to life.” (Eitz Chayim, 763)

The verses in Jeremiah highlight one of the gravest ways one can turn away from God’s commandments: idolatry. “Thus says the Lord: Cursed is he who trusts in man, who makes mere flesh his strength, and turns his thoughts from the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5) In both Leviticus and Jeremiah the result of the selfishness and shortsightedness that our tradition ascribes to those who turn away from God is that the entire community will suffer chaos and disorder.

While this week’s Torah and Haftarah portions set up a much stricter way of life than many (if not most) of us would be comfortable with, there is still a lot that we can learn from these sections of our Tanakh. These portions remind us that no one exists in a vacuum. They teach us that the things that we do, say, or tweet will impact the health and safety of the collective.

We should understand the idea of turning away from God to make “mere flesh [our] strength” to mean that those who turn away from the knowledge that they are beholden to something larger than themselves, whether that is God, the community, or the path of history, are behaving selfishly and recklessly because they refuse to see the impact that their actions have on themselves and others.

The right path, the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah tell us, is to trust in God and to behave righteously. The right path is to remember that each of us exists within a spiritual ecosystem that our actions will either sustain or destroy.

Now, that message comes with a lot of pressure. We have the power to either sustain or destroy. But, fortunately, we are not the first to feel slightly overwhelmed by the weight of that responsibility. The opening words of B’chukotai are often translated as, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” But the verb, “taelaechu,” can be literally translated as “walk or go.” Commentators explain that this suggest that, “humans ‘walk’ in God’s ways but angels ‘stand’ in the presence of God. Human beings, unlike angels, have the ability to grow and change after doing something wrong.” (Eitz Chayim, 747)

The world that the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah describe is not one without forgiveness or compassion. We do not have to be perfect. Instead, we are meant to be holy, and a holy life is one that recognizes that we are part of something and responsible to something much larger than ourselves. A holy life is one that honors the reality that we have both the power to affect the world as well as a responsibility to make sure that our contribution is one that strengthens the whole.

On this Shabbat, my prayer is that each of us finds the internal space and strength that will allow us to counter the voices that push for chaos and selfishness with the simple truth that we are called to be holy. If we heed that call, the world will be stronger, and we will be stronger. Ken Yehe Ratzon. May it be God’s will.

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