People always tell us to count our blessings. Rarely, if ever, does anyone tell us to count our curses. After all, who wants to think about all the bad things that have happened because of our action or inaction, much less all the terrible consequences we might yet face for making bad decisions, poor choices or worse.
But this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bechukotai, does exactly this. Beginning with a brief and inspiring reminder of the potential for blessing if we choose to put God and God’s values at the very center of our lives, the Torah quickly moves on to a comprehensive and terrifying list of terrible curses, reminding us that our failure to live our lives according to the values of our Jewish tradition will lead to severe consequences.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at Chapters 26 and 27 of Leviticus in your Bible. The curses are not for the faint of heart!
Clearly, the Torah wants to teach us that actions have consequences. We all know that from our life experience. Yet we make the same mistakes over and over.
Yet a single verse that potentially offers us a way to growth and even redemption is hidden in clear sight in the midst of this Torah portion. In Levitucus 26:13 we read: “I am the Eternal, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, so that you would not be their slaves; and I have broken the bars of your yoke and led you to stand upright.”
The alternative to being enslaved by our choices is to follow God and to stand upright. Rashi teaches, standing too straight can actually be a sign of arrogance. Jewish tradition goes out of its way to condemn such haughtiness, teaching, in fact, that it is more proper for scholars and other leaders to show humility in both stance and words. Yet elsewhere, we are taught that it is good to stand up, especially when we stand up for what is right.
We can understand this in our own day. Think about some of the many ways in which standing, and standing upright, can be understood:
“I can’t stand it!”
“Stand up and be counted.”
“Stand up for what is right.”
“Stand up to injustice.”
“Be a stand-up kind of person.”
“Stand up to bullies. Speak truth to power.”
“Stand for your values.”
These days, we have ample opportunities to stand up. To align ourselves with the values for which we want to be known. To choose the right thing over the easy thing, to choose Jewish values and God’s values over expediency, self-interest or comfort.
While it may seem that choosing one’s needs and preferences over the needs of the community or the many or what is good and right might lead one to stand upright, nothing could be further from the truth. The heaviness of living with such choices eventually catches up to us and becomes a heavy burden, a yoke, around our shoulders.
To choose to do what is right is always liberating, lifting us up and lightening our load. We can walk with a genuine lightness when we are relieved of the weight of selfishness. When we follow the law of God, we feel lighter, and we can stand upright.
The Torah reminds us from whence the blessings flow. Our responsibility is how, when and if to stand up for what is right and good and blessed.
Rabbi James Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.