15 May 2014

Behukotai 5774 – Better to Have Loved and Lost?

Behukotai is not an easy parasha to read. There is the obvious reasonits graphic presentation of harrowing events that a disobedient Jewish people might suffer but even its other portions are charged with an intensity that brings us a significant level of uneasiness as well.  By the tenth verse, G-d promises that in good times He will walk among us.

I will walk among you. And I will be your G-d and you will be my nation. (26:12)

While that ostensibly sounds like a lovely plan, the idea of G-d walking among us in this “I will be yours and you will be mine” relationship, is a high stakes notion with a fall-out of equal proportions. What would life be like if G-d were ever-present among us? Could anything be casual in such a situation? What devastation would it bring if it were to falter? With a bit of thought we might prefer that G-d admire us from afar.

Walking with G-d may be no less severe than the other fearful elements of the parasha. Close, intimate and committed relationships are anything but easy and casual. They demand a high level of personal attention and investment that causes many of us to avoid serious relationships for fear of the weight and meaning they will bring into our lives. Often times we will subconsciously sabotage relationships that are becoming more serious in order to protect ourselves from the potential pain that a broken heart would bring. It is certainly safer to like rather than love.

But there is no word for ‘like’ in Hebrew. It is ahaba – love, or it is nothing. In fact, on Facebook, where liking is the name of the game, Israeli Facebookers are forced to use the transliterated English word and לייק other people’s posts for lack of native equivalent. לאהוב, to love, would be far too serious. In Hebrew, however, there is only love. Of course, there can be different types and intensities of love, but what all love has in common is that it includes a commitment of the heart and one’s personal investment.

Our holy language reflects that G-d expects us to care about our lives, to go all-in with our experiences and endeavors, and to be fully invested in our moments. But to care for something so deeply bears a great deal of risk, and we are not always prepared to take that gamble. When one cares a great deal, one also hurts a great deal. The word ‘courage’ has the latin word for heart,  cor, at its root, describing one who endeavors with a full heart.

Perhaps one of the most difficult issues in the Jewish people’s complicated relationship with G-d, as with our human relationships, is the question of love and care. It is not Shabbat, kashrut, or any of the other mitsvot that truly daunt us. It is the question of what taking on such acts of love would mean and what level of care and commitment they would require. Indeed, even among those that practice, many only resolve to do so out of rote rather than passion.

While a life with G-d walking among us is sure to bring with it security, joy and prosperity, it also brings severity and scrutiny. For when you are in love, things matter more, not less.

As with all love in our lives we must either courageously risk heartache, and love completely, or forgo the love and suffice with the safe and secure environment of ‘like’. Behukotai tells us that love is the only real option. As Tennyson famously echoed,

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

In our best and boldest moments we opt for love. In doing so, we touch life’s greatest vibrancy and we glimpse creation’s true beauty. All too often, though, we keep our protections intact and pass through life liking much but loving little. In doing so, we not only miss out on many blessed experiences, we also keep G-d at bay. Behukotai is not a parasha about disobedience. It is a parasha about apathy. When we grow cold and indifferent, the world becomes indifferent to us. But when we are courageous enough to love, although it is intense, we surge with the power of life and gaze into the eye of our Creator.

Shabbat Shalom to you all,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck