Parshayot B’har-B’hukotai • Leviticus 25:1-26:2, 26:3-27:34

Is God’s love conditional?

Most of us would (hopefully) answer no. Of course the God of our imaginations and prayers possesses unlimited, unfiltered love. Of course the God in which we may or may not believe possesses the type of love most akin to that between a parent and child. Whether we were raised in a home rooted in Jewish values, a Christian family led by the teachings of Jesus, or a non-religious environment entirely, most of us can agree that God loves us no matter who we are or what we do. God’s love is eternal, steadfast, and sees no boundaries. That’s the beauty of being human.

Yet for some who follow the exact letter of the law, (halachically speaking, at least) a piece of this week’s double portion hits on a caveat: “IF you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4) That major conjunction (or is it a noun?) sets us up with a condition: ‘to get the benefits, you’ve gotta have a little skin in the game.’ When it comes to God, one must follow the laws and observe the commandments faithfully. Otherwise, you’re up that creek without a paddle.

And so two questions emerge for me: first, why set the Jews up for failure? No one is perfect – no entity knows this better than God – and so, why pose this thinly veiled threat to our continued existence? And second, what does it mean to “faithfully” observe commandments? Can one even observe the commandments and prescriptions without faith? What happens when your faith wanes – as it can, over time – and where does that leave you?

All this leaves us open to a multitude of interpretations (and further questions). This week I choose to focus on the following: God does not demand our perfection, but our best. We bring what we can and give what’s possible. We are encouraged (yes, some might say commanded) to plunge ourselves to the depths of Jewish belief and practice; it’s not enough simply skimming the surface. Similar to other corners and pockets of Torah where God comes across more like a strict school principal than a loving, supportive and evolving presence, here in Leviticus we find a hint of hyperbole intended to push us toward action.

And when it comes to faith, well – like humans, God’s faith often wanes too. We witness it in Torah and throughout the corpus of sacred text. If God can ride the wave of emotion that is faith, so can we. To demand perfection of human beings is a whole lot like expecting those up a creek without a paddle will make it safely back to the dock; it’s just not likely to end well. And so we strive for our best each and every morning – climbing, falling, and rising once more to meet the challenges of the everyday.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen