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Torah Commentary
B'chukotai (June 4, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

The Trouble With “If”

This parashah is called B’chukotai, but its first words are actually Im behukotai telehu. (Literally, “If you my laws follow.”) The redactors of the Torah didn’t bother with little words like im (if) in selecting titles for the parashiyot (portions) of the five books of the Torah. But our tradition teaches us that every word of the Torah is important, and any child can tell you that no word is more important than “if.”

“If you clean your room, then you can go out and play,” says Mother. “If you get good grades this semester, then I’ll give you 10 dollars,” promises Dad. (I am assuming it’s $10 now; it was $1 in my day. Or has inflation risen even higher?)

When my son was young, we watched a PBS version of “Cinderella” together and both of us loved Cinderella’s answer to the wicked stepmother, who said, “If you wash the dishes, and IF you dry the dishes, then MAYBE you can go to the ball.”

“‘If’ is a wishy-washy word, and I wouldn’t give two hoots for ‘maybe’ either,” says Cindy, and she flounces off “to the pumpkin patch to hitch a ride.”

God promises the Israelites that if they follow the commandments, then they will have rain at the right time, followed by abundant harvests and much prosperity. What I didn’t quote here, but what takes up much of the chapter, is what will happen if they do NOT obey. “I will wreak misery upon you,” God says, and proceeds to spell it out in gory detail. “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper.” And that’s just the beginning. It goes on and on, culminating in defeat and exile.

Maybe this is tough love. Maybe the writers of the Torah thought that by literally putting the fear of God in the hearts of the people, they could ensure good behavior. But any parent knows the danger of this kind of conditional bargaining.

The problem with “if” is that it implies both sides can keep their promises. You promised Susie that if she cleaned up her room, then you would take her to the beach — but it rained. You threatened Sam that, unless he did his homework, he could not go to the movies. He didn’t do his homework, but his brother and sister did theirs. Must the whole family stay home because Sam misbehaved?

It gets even more problematic when the stakes become higher and involve life and death for a whole people. God tells Israel that good harvests will come if they keep the commandments but not if they don’t. Does that mean the people can relax if harvests are good and can do as they please? If there’s a drought, should they assume that all have been wicked and that nothing they do will put them back in God’s good graces?

Reform Jews do not believe the Torah was written word for word by God but that it was divinely inspired. And, because the authors were human, they understood human behavior. While B’chukotai threatens horrible punishment for the Israelites if they misbehave, the authors cannot resign themselves to condemning this people to destruction. After predicting the harshest punishment imaginable — death and exile — the authors relent. Remember that father whose son doesn’t do homework? Chances are he will say, “Okay, son, you can come to the movies, but when we come home, I am going to help you with your homework, and we’ll try to figure out why you couldn’t get it done.”

If Dad agrees to have mercy on his child, then we certainly can expect that God will come to a similar conclusion. We look to passages like the following one for reassurance: “Yet, even when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God.” (Leviticus 26:24)

As parents, we know the difference between reasonable discipline and unreasonable punishment. And so, we must believe, does God. Call it “tough love,” but we must hope that justice will be tempered by mercy in the end.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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