Written Torah, Oral Torah, and Atonement

BeharBechukotai בְּהַר-בְּחֻקֹּתַי

Drash by Daniel Koster

Blessed were the Israelites in the time of Moses, for they knew the danger. The procedure for sacrifice is to place the offering on the altar, and wait for fire to come out from the presence of the Lord and consume the offering, a sign that the offering has been accepted. Aaron’s sons ignite their own offerings, and are themselves consumed by fire. I don’t know how many times I read this before understanding it. They are destroyed not because their offering was improper. Cain’s offer was rejected, but he was given the opportunity to correct himself. Aaron’s sons went too far when they presumed the acceptance of their sacrifice, when they attempted to cut the Lord out of the equation. Moses commands the bereft father and brothers, do not mourn. Do not tear your clothes or uncover your head. Your sons were wrong, and they got what was coming to them. For all of our sakes, you will keep your uniform proper and return to your duties. How many times do you think Aaron strayed from the righteous path after that? Blessed were these people, for they knew the might of the Lord. Where the Israelites had terrifying experience, we have stories. Even if any among us believe with whole heart that these events did happen to real people, we still require weekly and even daily reminders. We bind it on our hands and inscribe it on our doorposts. How many reminders do you think Aaron needed about the power of the Lord? 

This seems like a good time for a joke. A Missionary has travelled all the way to the North Pole to spread the good news to a previously uncontacted Inuit tribe. After the missionary tells the elders all about God and the Bible, the chief asks, “So what happens if I don’t accept your beliefs?” The missionary tells him he will suffer in hell forever. “So if we had not learned of your beliefs, would we still go to hell?” The missionary tells him no, because you did not know. The chief rises and cries: “Then why did you tell me?”

This week’s Parsha is the part where he tells us. “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments […] I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you. […] But if you do not obey Me […] and you break My covenant, […] I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper […] I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children […] And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.” 

Who says heaven and hell are places you go after you die? We are told that heaven and hell are right here on planet earth, and that our actions determine where we go. By this point in the torah we know the law, we know what we stand to gain if we obey, and what’s coming if we don’t. All we have to do is follow it. But we have not witnessed the wrath of God firsthand. Modern people only follow a fraction of the law. I recently attended some Chabad services and those guys are all in on their practice (except the ones who come just for the food), but even they excuse themselves from large sections of the Torah that are incompatible with the modern world. We observe the laws our lifestyle allows, and we commit the sins we can get away with.

As we know, there is the written torah, and the oral torah; none of which we modern people follow perfectly. Then there is the less discussed canon I like to call the Not Technically in the Torah but I’m Pretty Sure the Lord Would Not Be Too Happy About It, and we do that stuff all the time. These are the sins we can sort of convince ourselves are ok, because they’re not specifically forbidden. Maybe no one saw, and no one could attribute the consequences to you. And if we believe in anything at all, we have to believe these sins are leading us to the place with the swords and the wild beasts and the being scattered among the nations. This is why the missionary at the north pole is naive when he says there is no punishment if you don’t know the rules. Because the world before the law was the world of desolation and starvation and violence. That’s the default world for humans; the world that godless animals still live in. Bechukotai isn’t the lord threatening to do bad things to us if we neglect the law; The Lord is describing what life is like for people who do not follow the law. The Law is not a shackle holding us down; it’s our best bet against the terrible world we live in. 

So does the Lord hate us because we follow the law imperfectly? If he was like a human he might, because we sometimes hate people who won’t listen to us. It seems more likely to me, and more productive to believe, that the Lord loves us, and wants us to live well. My evidence: well, I know I haven’t been consumed in holy fire. Modern Jews seem to speak little about redemption, yet the Lord prophesies right here in the text: “When I […] have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity. Then will I remember My covenant […], even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the LORD am their God.”

Soon I set out across the vast and murderous Pacific. The ocean is always trying to kill us, and it has many weapons to use against us: storms, rust, fire, hostile ships, and even sharks. In a word, the ocean is a lot like hell, as described in this week’s parsha. Am I so sure of my good conduct that I know I am not sailing to my final judgement? Never. Have I so thoroughly exercised sin from my life, and atoned for my past, that I no longer fear the sea? Not even close. And if you reject the idea that the Lord should let anything bad happen to someone as sweet as me, remember that he alone has all the facts of the case. The good news is that atop the hell of the ocean, a good boat is a lot like heaven. A place of plenty, security, and community. I can only do my small part to keep it afloat. Unlike Aaron’s sons, I lack the self confidence to assume that my small contribution will be good enough. I can only remember this: if there were no second or third or nth chances, there would be no more humans. Each of us holds a standing invitation back to the covenant, to whatever extent we are willing. And each step we as individuals make toward the presence of the Lord is a step our people make toward the promised land.

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