Torah ideas from Zalman Kastel
Degradation & Grime, Abundance & “Good Breeding” Bechukotai 2 2011
How do we respond when confronted with the impact of degradation on people? Political correctness seems to demand that because people are of a minority we must never speak about their faults, which can’t be right. On the other hand those of us who are privileged can be judgemental and patronising.
I reflect on my reaction to a group of Indigenous people I saw in Todd Mall, in the centre of Alice Springs (Australia), the first time I met Indigenous people outside a “Westernised” situation. Their eyes were blank, they seemed completely zoned out, their clothes dirty and shabby, they appeared to be wandering around aimlessly. I could not help looking down at these degraded people. I did not think, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
I was reminded of this experience recently while reading Mark Twain’s very disparaging, even racist comments about the “Goshoot Indians”i. I now think I should have thought about the effects of privilege and degradation before I judged these people who I learned later were probably drunk.
This week, Jews read about two sets of circumstances in which God places the “children of Israel”. These involve either prosperity and peace or frightening calamities, and are primarily a lesson about reward and punishment and our relationship with God (this is reflected in the drawing of three ways of being with God, grace, retribution and unconditional covenant). On another level, the dramatic effects of these conditions on the moral, social, psychological and communal lives of the people are worth exploring.
Privilege and Plenty on the Macro level
If the Jews will “walk in my statutes and keep my commandmentsii” great reward will follow. We are promised “rain in its time”iii. These rains will result in an abundance of produce, and according to commentaries, also “clean and good air”, and will be good for the “wells and rivers and cause good health for bodies and fruits…people will not fall ill…iv”.
Peace – Outer and Inner
We are also promised the blessing of peace, “Peace is equal to everything!”v. “You will dwell securely in your land. I will give peace in the land, you will sleep and not be afraid”vi.
Some see peace on an international level. “it is possible that it means peace in the world in general …he assures them that there will be peace in the entire world…the desire of God is for this, which is reflected in the 70 oxen offered as sacrifices on the festival corresponding to the 70 nations of the world…vii
There is a strong trend among commentaries to interpret peace in social and psychological terms. “There will be peace between you; a man will not fight with his brother”viii. Putting it another way, “God will plant peace and friendship in your hearts. As a result of the great harvests, people will not need to wander looking for work, instead they will feel deeply rooted in the land and automatically there will be no crimeix.
The Torah verse “and a sword will not pass in your landx” is interpreted to mean that “People will feel so secure that they will not be accustomed to use swordsxi”. Or that the sense of security will result in the elimination of the ancient equivalent of airport security. There was a custom that no man was allowed to enter a land in time of war with their weapons, instead these would be confiscated and given to the guard and the city ruler, but during times of peace they will not go out to remove the swords “because each man will trust in his brother and believe (in each other)xii”.
In this scenario, we live dignified, happy, peaceful, admirable lives, made far easier by privilege. I acknowledge that being happy if one is privileged is not effortless, too many people have everything and are still miserable. Still, for those of us who have so much, we must never think ourselves superior to those tested in the most difficult circumstances.
Calamity and its social and personal impact
“If will not listen and not do all these commandments”xiii, we are warned that this will result in Illness, failed crops, drought, wild animals, desolate roads, pestilence, military defeat, destruction of cities and land, and exile.
On an internal level we are warned that the illness is such that it makes the eyes fail and the soul languishxiv, and the patient is “depressed and worried”xv.
Famine will not only mean that many people will go without food, but that even if you get some food, “You will eat but not be satisfiedxvi”. The famine will drive people to cannibalism, “you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you will eat”xvii. “The image of God will be removed from their faces, and replaced with a face of fury, when their enemies see these “faces of fury” they will be filled with crueltyxviii”. You will run away, but there will be no one chasing youxix. God will bring a weakness in their hearts, they will be pursued by the sound of a driven leaf, and they will flee as if from a swordxx. “Death will kill them from withinxxi”.
Turning on each other
Communally, things will go bad. “Even as exiles in the lands of their enemies they will be apart from each other, instead of of following the (usual) way of exiles to comfort one another…each seeks to push his friend with strong arm tactics, to knock him down from his (meagre) situation. Like reeds that are hit twice, once by the wind, then as they knock each other…it is like honey, sweet in his mouth if he can find an opportunity to speak badly about his fellow”xxii. “Enemies will arise from among your nation, because they are familiar with you they know where to search for your hidden (goods), and they are worse them enemies from (other) nations…they will steal your flesh and skin”xxiii.
Importance of Choice
Heather Laughton is an impressive Indigenous Australian woman from Alice Springs. She believes one very important lesson young people in her community need to learn is that they have a choice about how they respond to their situation. One of the most passionate arguments in defence of people whose “place lead them to sin” combines this with the insistence that he has no excuse for his sins because he should have chosen to do what is right out of fear of Godxxiv. The exercise of this kind of choice by people in the worst situations and hardship is profoundly inspiring.
Perhaps one source of strength for people in hard times is stated at the lowest point of our reading. “And even when they will be in the lands of their enemies, I will not despise them, not will I abhor them to destroy them utterly, to break my covenant with them, because I am YkVkxxv their God. I will remember the covenant…xxvi This is unconditional love and an unbreakable bond.
The prophet Jeremia said four thingsxxvii (about God’s relationship with the Jews), disgust, abhorrence, abandonment and forgetfulness. “Have you become disgusted with Judea, if with Zion your soul (finds) abhorrentxxviii” but he was answered by Moses “I will not despise them, not will I abhor them to destroy them utterly”, He also said “why forever will you forget us, abandon us for length of daysxxix”, in this he was answered by Isaiah who brought God’s message that “also these should be forgotten, but I will not forget you”xxx.
For me living in great abundance in comparison with most of the earth’s inhabitants, I must be grateful for what I have and recognise that ever I achieve has been done with profound advantages. When I look at those who subsist on crumbs and live with powerlessness, I must stand in awe of those who choose to live with dignity and standards, and avoid judgement of others for whom civility itself can become hard to preserve and crime hard to resist. For there, but for the grace of God, go I. Perhapsxxxi.
i Twain, Mark, in “Roughing it” chapter 19, p127-129. The name “Go-Shoot Indians” suggests that it might be a satire, although it might just be an ironic renaming of the “Gosiutes”. Regardless of his various intentions, what he writes is a view held by some about various groups living in poverty and diminished circumstances and struggling with social problems). Among other things he states “It was along in this wild country somewhere, and far from any habitation of white men, except the stage stations, that we came across the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen, up to this writing. I refer to the Goshoot Indians….inferior to all races of savages on our continent… small, lean, “scrawny” creatures; in complexion a dull black like the ordinary American Negro; their faces and hands bearing dirt which they had been hoarding and accumulating for months, years, and even generations, according to the age of the proprietor; a silent, sneaking, treacherous looking race; taking note of everything, covertly, like all the other “Noble Red Men” that we (do not) read about, and betraying no sign in their countenances; indolent, everlastingly patient and tireless, like all other Indians; prideless beggars–for if the beggar instinct were left out of an Indian he would not “go,” any more than a clock without a pendulum; …savages who, when asked if they have the common Indian belief in a Great Spirit show a something which almost amounts to emotion, thinking whiskey is referred to…It was curious to see how quickly the paint and tinsel fell away from him and left him treacherous, filthy and repulsive”. For more on this, see a general scholarly discussion at http://homepage.mac.com/jim_sullivan/writings/goshoots.html or a more focused critique at http://tselfoninternets.blogspot.com/2009/02/mark-twain-and-holmbergs-mistake.html,
ii Leviticus 26:3
iii Leviticus 26:4, Rashi points out that in addition to the agricultural benefits of the rain, it will also not even inconvenience people because it will fall on Friday nights when people are not usually outdoors
v Rashi on Leviticus 26:6
vi Leviticus 26:5-6
vii Ohr Hachayim, I wondered how he reconciles his wonderful interpretation with the following verse “and you will pursue your enemies and they will fall before you by the sword” (Leviticus 26:7). He states in his commentary to the next verse, “what He assures (us) is that from the other nations not will do evil or destroy but not there will not be (harm and destruction) from Israel to (the) nations…you will pursue them and destroy them and in spite of this you will sit securely and in peace…they are called enemies, not because they come to lay siege to the holy city (of Jerusalem) because if this was the case, there is no security and there is no peace for its inhabitants, rather it calls them “enemies” because they are the enemies of God, the wicked of the nations, therefore they are called the enemies of God and are therefore also our enemies…” I will not attempt to explain this.
viii Ramban, and Ibn Ezra, Ramban goes on to state that animals will not miscarry or be barren
ix Hoffman, R. David Zwi, quoted in Nachshoni, Y, Studies in the Weekly Parsha Artscroll Publications, Jerusalem, p.873. Even the International understanding of peace of the Ohr Hachayim, has a psychological element as he states “when there are wars (anywhere) in the world, even those in living securely will tremble for the sounds of war .
x Leviticus 26:6
xi Haemek Davar
xii Pirush Yonatan, in the name of “my older brother, the Aluf, my master and teacher, Rabbi Naftali”.
xiii Leviticus 26:14-43
xiv Leviticus 26:16
xvi Leviticus 26:26
xvii Levticus 26:29
xviii “Shach” ( I don’t think it is the sifsei Chachomim as I was unable to find it), quoted in Greenbaum, N, Otzar Mefarshei Hapshat al Hatorah on Leviticus 26:17
xix Leviticus 26:17, see a wonderful piece on modern applications of this idea by Rabbi Zalman Posner,
xx Leviticus 26:36
xxi Sifsei Chachomim on 26:17
xxii Klei Yakar on Leviticus 26:36
xxiii Yalkut Bechukotai 673
xxiv Tanya 30, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady
xxv Chasidic custom is to refer to the Tetgramaton as Yud Kay Vav Kay.
xxvi Leviticus 26:44-45
xxvii Eicha Rabba 5:20
xxviii Jeremia 14:19
xxix Lamentations 5:20
xxx Isaiah 49:15
xxxi I learned the idea of adding the word perhaps at the end of a thought from my colleague Fuzz Kitto