Bechuchotai 5777 – Reaping What We Sow – No Parsing of Words is Necessary

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Some years back, I was riding in an organized bike ride in Waxahatchie. The ride had hundreds of riders, and it was a warm and windy day. I was going along with the wind at my back – at a really nice clip. The realization descended on me gradually that I was on the wrong route. I hadn’t seen other riders for some time, except one in my little rear-view mirror on my helmet. No one else was on this long country road. I slowed to let the other rider to catch up. He was wearing a number, so I knew he was in the same ride as me.

As he came alongside me, I said hello, and told him that I had good news and bad news. He must have thought, “Who is this?” I Told him that the bad news was that I was quite certain we were not on the correct road. Somehow, we had missed a turn. He looked around, realized that I was right, and his face took on a look of consternation. The good news, I reported . . . . was that we were making excellent time! We pulled over, and a farmer (whose outfit didn’t look anything like ours) looked at our route map and told us how to get back on the right road. We were just a few miles off.

So there we were – until that point, speeding along, without the proper direction. (already sounds like a religious lesson, doesn’t it? You were wondering how I was going to segway this into today’s parashah. Have no fear!)

In today’s parashah, Gd tells the Israelites what their rewards will be if they obey the commandments. All of the commandments. Gd goes on to describe what the consequences will be for disobedience. These curses that will befall the sinners are called the tokhechah.

Tali Sharot, is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College of London who wrote a book that describes examples of how hope is a better motivating factor in inducing an action, while fear is more useful in impeding an action. This is consistent with how the Torah teaches us. When explaining the consequences of sinning, we’re not told that we and the world would be better off if we didn’t behave in this way. We are told that we will be severely punished! Similarly, we are told that we will be rewarded – handsomely – by following Gd’s laws. So this is a very simplistic and almost childish approach to coaxing proper behavior in a person or in a group. But as I explained in an earlier D’var that I gave on this parashah, this is how you treat a toddler, and the Israelites were in their “toddlerhood” as a people.

In one of the commentaries I read, the point was made that a particular word, keree – kuf, reish, is mentioned a number of times in this portion – I counted 7 times – and is found nowhere else in the entire tanakh. Well, you can just imagine how Jewish scholars have had a feast trying to figure this one out! There seems to be some dispute as to the exact meaning of this word.

As is often the case, many commentators have turned to the Rambam, Maimonides for his explanation. He teaches that this word is quite similar to another Hebrew word, mikrei. Recall my D’var on the very first parashah in Leviticus. It begins with the word vayikra. But the aleph at the end of the word is written in the Torah in a small font, and the meaning of the word changes dramatically, depending on whether the aleph is used in the word. Well, the meaning of mikrei changes in a similar way if just one letter is exchanged for another. Well, kirei, mikrei, change a letter . . . Quite an extrapolation, if you ask me. There is no small-font letter here, and the word in question must be related to another word in this explanation. Quite a stretch.

The issue of kiree’s meaning actually seems very simple to me (consistent with my simple mind when it comes to analyzing these parashot). In Etz chaim as well as in most of the other translations I’ve looked at (5 in all), the word is usually translated as contrary, or hostile.

As in, if you behave with hostility to me (Gd), I will behave with hostility to you. And since we are taught that we all carry a spark of the divine within us, treating a fellow person with either dignity or with hostility is akin to treating Gd with dignity or hostility. And the person (or Gd) will behave toward us in kind. It seems that the word can also mean nonchalance – if you treat me casually, then I will treat you casually. To me, very simply, we reap what we sow.

When my ultrasound technologist, Vaishali Kapadia began working for me, she commented about how my patients were so nice. I told her that they were neither more nor less nice than other patients. But when a person is greeted with a smile and with respect, most of the time they will respond in kind. And I’m very particular about how patients are treated when they come to my office. So yes, if we simply follow the Golden Rule, Do unto others . . . most of the time, we will be met with pleasant behavior in return.

So now let’s go a step beyond immediate reward and punishment. The Torah gave the Israelites a sense of purpose and a direction. No people more than the Jews has insisted that humanity has a purpose and an eventual destiny. The individual matters. Bill Sutker gave a D’var some time back in which he spoke about how we are all important to our kehillah. Everyone has a role, and everyone must do their part. This is yet another example in Judaism about how the individual matters. Everyone is important. We have all been created in the Divine image, and so we all have infinite worth.

People who endeavor to change the world – in however modest a way – even those who try to impact our kehillah in their own way – have a purpose, a mission. As Rabbi Sacks said in one of his teachings, “To give human life the dignity of a purpose – a proper direction – that is what we as individuals and what we as Jews are called upon to show the world.”

This quest to have a mission actually squares with my “Kehillaversary” talk. The three cornerstones of my belief are: belief in a creator, the miracle of Jewish survival, and the fundamental truths and teachings of Judaism that have endured and have been incorporated by other peoples throughout history. All three of these foundational pieces mandate that I – we – have a purpose, and that purpose begins with helping make the world better by making ourselves better in how we interact with people and how we respond to Gd’s commandments.

We have clung to our individual and collective roles with persistence for centuries. Our vision has been an example – a template – used by others.

And when we live our lives with a sense of purpose, direction, and the  proper treatment of others, more often than not, we will find that we are rewarded – not, perhaps in the ways that the Torah explicitly mentioned, but rather in a much more profound sense: with feelings of satisfaction, inner peace, and pleasant relationships with others.