Unity and Liberty: A Drash on B’chukotai — June 3, 2016
by Elissa Barrett & Josh Gershick
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This aphorism is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. In truth, the original quote comes from a speech given in Dublin, in 1790, by the Irish abolitionist John Philpot Curran, who said: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”
Which brings us to Parashat B’chukotai – the final Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, which promises us God’s protection and care, God’s abundance and presence, if we are intentional and vigilantly apply an ethical code of conduct in our lives and in our relationships with God, with each other and with the Earth.
B’chukotai is thought to be an epilogue to all of Leviticus with its many statutes and rules detailing the practical path to “holiness” for the Jewish people.
The Parashah contains a set of blessings. God says, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My Commandments, I will grant you rains in their season … and you shall eat your fill of bread.” God promises to make us fertile, to protect us from our enemies, and to be ever-present in our midst.
God also reminds us, “I am Adonai your God, who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright” ¬¬– with pride, which means “to have a consciousness of one’s own dignity” and “a feeling of belonging.”
In contrast to these beneficent Promises, God outlines the consequences for both intentional disobedience and careless disregard for the path of “holiness” we are called to follow. God says, “If you reject my laws and spurn my rules so that you do not observe all of my Commandments and break my Covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you; I will set my face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. … Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of your land yield their fruit. … I will break your proud glory.”
And that’s just for starters.
In fact, there are three times as many curses as blessings, just so we get the point. In sum, God says, “Jews: Break the rules, and you’re dead to me.”
Or, as John Philpot Curran might say: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to [us] is eternal vigilance.”
But about what should we be vigilant?
Shall we be vigilant about killing unblemished male goats on the north side of the altar? About not shaking a woman’s hand when she’s menstruating? About avoiding linen/wool- blend suits? Shall we be vigilant about any number of the obsessive, arti-factual proscriptions for clean living outlined in Leviticus?
Perhaps we should be vigilant about something else entirely – about what it truly means to live a God-centered life? After all, B’chukotai is about our entering into a Covenant with God after having been brought out of slavery into freedom. Freedom is the state of mind where we walk upright – with pride.
What kind of lives then are we responsible for living as free, proud people? What are our ethics? Are we honest? Do we practice kindness, compassion and empathy? Do we listen? Or are we receptive only to that with which we immediately agree? Do we insist that we know everything, or are we enthusiastically life-long learners, open always to a new perspective? Are we generous? Are we looking out for each other, or only ourselves? Is our dominant mode to be critical or appreciative? Do we care for this gorgeous living Earth and for the well-being of all the glorious creatures on it?
What do we owe ourselves? What do we owe each other? What do we owe our community? Who is included in “our community”?
There have been calls lately for the “L” and “G” – having won the freedom to marry – to separate themselves from the “B” and especially from the “T,” who are still very much in Mitzrayim – the Narrow Place.
Should we wait to make sure everyone makes it across to the far shore of the Red Sea, or should we leave parts of our community behind to face the crushing waters of oppression – whether that oppression is based on gender-identity, race, national origin, age, disability or class?
We think here of Benjamin Franklin, who said, “We must all hang together or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” His aim had been to warn the 13 colonies of the peril that could be befall them if they failed to unify behind the Declaration of Independence.
Unity and liberty: You can’t have one without the other.
Take Proposition 8. In 2008, our freedom to marry was put to a popular vote. When the polls closed and the votes were counted, we were horrified to learn that non-queer portions of the African-American and Latino communities had voted against our right to form this most intimate of relationships. Outraged, we vilified them. How could they do that to us – as if there were no intersection between the queer community and communities of color?
But had we reached out to communities of color to learn how we could support their struggles for freedom? Also on the ballot that year was Proposition 3, which sought to reform California’s Three Strikes Law, a pillar of the system of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects people of color, particularly African-Americans and Latinos.
No! We had thought only of ourselves. Our issue. Our struggle. Our civil rights.
This narrowness brings to mind the words of the Lutheran pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller, who, in 1937, speaking out against Nazi persecution wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Or as Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when”?
So let’s talk about what’s happening now. We are in the midst of the latest backlash against queer people, this time focused almost entirely on Transgender people. All of the old tropes used for decades to undermine the liberty and dignity of gay men and lesbians – that we molest children; that we disrupt the moral order; that we are freaks and likely mentally ill; that our freedom can only exist at the expense of so-called “states rights” – are being used against our Trans brothers and sisters. We also are in the midst of a political season in which animus, outright antipathy and even physical violence is incited against women, people of color, queer people, immigrants and Muslims.
Will we ensconce ourselves in our little silos – satisfied with the rights we’ve won – and say as Martin Niemöller suggests in his poem: “Nevermind. All that is not our affair”?
Right now. Here. Today. In this time and place. What does it mean to live a God-centered life? What does the Covenant require of us? What is the source of our Pride? Are we thinking of ourselves and only of what we can get? Or are we thinking of others and what we can give?
When Americans Muslims are demonized, are we speaking out in protest? When there are calls to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, are we objecting to the insanity of this enterprise? When vanity and the hunger for fashion results in the torture of animals and the exploitation of workers, are we using our power as consumers to reject this abuse? When religionists cut off women’s access to reproductive healthcare – in so-called Red states or Blue – do we fight for a woman’s right to control her body and her life? When Trans people – who merely wish to pee safely in the bathroom consistent with their gender identity – are characterized as sexual predators, will we stand united as an LGBTQ community?
God demands big things of the Jewish people. We are “Chosen,” yes. But not because we’re all that and a box of matzah, apart from our actions. We are Chosen to hew to a higher code of conduct, to act better than our human impulses might dictate. We are required to be bold in the face of injustice.
Let us be steeled by the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., which remind us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Chazak, Chazak, V’Nit Chazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. Happy Pride Month. Shabbat shalom.