Parshat Behar

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. As the Book of Vayikra\Leviticus comes to an end, we find a series of laws concerning the relationship between the farmers and the land. Six years we are allowed to till the soil but on the seventh year, we are to let the fields remain fallow. After seven of these sabbatical years, there is a Jubilee year where not only the land is not sown but the farm slaves get to go free as well.

3. On the one hand, this is one of the most important texts in the Torah. The idea that freedom is not just something to be treasured but that it is a divine right for all human beings. We are told to “proclaim liberty to all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Even the land is to be set free from its crop rotations. Indeed, it is said that the reason the Canaanites were driven from the land was because they did not let the land have its sabbaticals. The Torah is specific; if Jews don’t give the land its time, then they too will be thrown off of the land.

4. But there is a dark side to these laws as well. Try to imagine, if you will, about what a modern representative from a farm state would say about such a law today! I can hear him now, “What!! What is this Torah that would tell me when and where I can plant my crops? What kind of a God would have the nerve to tell me when to plant and when to leave the land fallow? I have been farming this land my whole life. I grew up on a farm. My father was a farmer like his father before him. This Government has to get out of my hair and let me go about my business.”

5. It is a difficult question, however, about what kind of a God tells us when we can plant and when we should refrain from planting. This kind of a law does not sound like it is a religious issue at all. Dedicating some of the harvest as a tithe may be a religious requirement, but not planting at all? What are we supposed to eat if we don’t plant any crops? Are we supposed to rely on God for our sustenance? How is that supposed to work?

6. Some people might say that we are supposed to live, during that sixth year, on our faith. That if we have the faith that God will not let us starve, then we will find that we do have what we need to live in the sabbatical year. And yet our tradition tells us that our lives should not rely on miracles. Like the man who prays to win the lottery but does not buy a ticket, or the congregation who gathers to pray for rain but nobody has enough faith to bring an umbrella.

7. Some would say that this is an example of how God tells us to do things for our own good. That the reason God has us keep our fields fallow every sixth year is because it lets the nutrients in the soil replenish. But now that we have modern fertilizers and up to date farming techniques, we no longer really need to keep these Torah laws. You see, they say, we are better farmers than God. Is God just about educating our ignorant ancestors? It is a matter of pride that we are too modern to need a God like this.

8. There are pious people who might look at these laws and say, “I don’t know why God does not allow us to plant in the seventh year, but if we are smart, it is not a wise idea to get God angry. God could send us blight to destroy our crops, or disease to strike down all those needed to harvest the fields. If we plant in the seventh year, God will send invaders and criminals to burn our cities and steal all our grain. If we plant when we are not supposed to, then God will “get us” for our disobedience.

9. This is the way that it has been for many centuries. Making sense of the Torah and of Jewish Law all boils down to what kind of a God we believe in. Is our God a god who would test our faith, forcing us to rely on a miracle? Or is our God one who teaches us good science and then gets out of the way? Maybe our God is a punishing god, looking for an excuse to bring down on our heads the wrath of heaven? Which of these Gods would you want to make your own?

10. The problem with these answers is that they all depend on a God who knows everything, who is all powerful and who is everywhere at the same time. Only pagans think that the gods can be sleeping. Only idols can be limited to a particular place or time There can be no power greater than our God and there can be no knowledge that is unknown to our God. God loves us and cares about us and must be committed to providing for our needs. Is this not what we see when we think of God: sitting on a throne in heaven, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent; looking down on the earth and establishing justice for all of God’s creatures?

11. Everyone knows someone who has a problem with this way of envisioning God. It is to be expected, I guess, since this is the God we learned about as children in Religious School. But as we grow, we discover problems with the old man in heaven. We find that sometimes we don’t get what we pray for. That sometimes God does not answer our prayers. We discover that bad things happen to really good people and the wicked seem to elude punishment. We wonder, why we should believe in God if God can’t be like Santa Claus, giving us all the goodies we want? If God does not deliver to us what our hearts desire, then what good is He? God may have all the power, but God can’t command us to love Him.

12. There is a different way of looking at God, and a more mature way of considering what God can be in our lives. The first step in finding our way back to God, to finding a more spiritual way of understanding God, depends on us being able to see ourselves and our place in the world differently. We think of our selves as strong and independent. Yet we know that we are the result of the work of many people in our lives. Our lives have turned out according to the way we were taught by parents, teachers, clergy and friends. We are hardly independent; we have always relied on others and we still rely on others in our daily lives. As long as we are learning and growing, we depend on each other. We are not people who exist, we are “events” we are the ever changing result of all the experiences of every moment in our lives. We have created our own selves by the decisions we have made, and those same decisions help us create our own world as well. Every time we make a decision, we choose in the present, how the past will shape our future.

13. In this model of humanity, God is found in our decisions. Remember what we read at the end of the book of Devarim? The Torah teaches us that God gives us a choice every day, to do good or bad, to choose life or death. We are commanded to choose life. These are very confusing verses. After all, God wants us to do good, but we are given the choice to do evil. Why can’t an all powerful God at least help us make good decisions? Also, what kind of a choice is life and death? Can we think of anyone who would choose to die?

14. When we consider that God can be found in our decisions, these verses become clearer. God does not make the decisions, we do. God wants us to choose well, but we have to make the choice. Each choice we make defines who we are today and helps shape our future. But God cannot know our future any more than we can know our future. The future depends on the choices me make at every moment in the present. If we choose well or if we choose poorly, we then go on to the next choice. Teshuva is our ability to make better choices. We always have the freedom to choose good and not bad. And if we wonder why anyone would choose death over life, we only need to point to those who choose to drive a car when they are impaired, or who choose to smoke a cigarette when they know the health hazards, or those who choose to ignore speed limits and traffic lights. We live by our choices and God is found in how we choose.

15. When we choose the good, God is happy, when we choose poorly, God is sad. If many people choose poorly, God can regret what God has created. When bad things happen to good people, it makes God and good people both sad and angry and we want to repair this flaw in the universe. On the other hand, when we see justice done, for example the demise of Osama bin Laden, even after ten years, God and humans are happy. When people make terrible choices they bring much chaos into the world. Good people making good decisions, however, brings God into the world and pushes back the chaos so that it cannot overwhelm us.

16. This is not kid stuff anymore. This is an adult God, one whom adults can learn about and learn from, a God that cares about us and about the world. This is an understanding of God who does not punish us for sins but who wants us to avoid sin and chaos so we can grow and learn and live better everyday. This is a way to find God in acts of kindness and compassion.

17. Teaching theology in a sermon is always a very complicated lesson. It is only possible to hint at the possibilities of what God could mean to our daily lives and to our spiritual lives if we were to consider God in a different light. This is why I am offering a short summer learning series, after Shul on Shabbat to talk about the God we believe in and the way we can bring that God into our lives. On three Shabbatot in a row, May 28, June 4 and June 11, in the weeks before and after Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah, we will learn, over lunch, what it means to believe in God and how that belief can color all that we do. Call the synagogue office during the week to make your Lunch and Learn reservations.

18. One of my teachers compares learning about God to painting his living room. It was a hideous shade of green. They asked about painting it white but the painter looked at the walls and said, “I think that under this paint is some real wood. Three days later, after much sandblasting and varnishing, a beautiful wood wall was there for all to see and appreciate. So too, we have struggled so long trying to understand God as the immovable force in the universe, but maybe, underneath the centuries of accumulated philosophy and paint, there is a beautiful room, waiting for us to uncover its secrets. Join us starting on May 28 and bring the ancient beauty and wisdom of Jewish theology into your home and into your life.


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