This portion of Behar toward the end of Leviticus is similar to the rest of the book. God continues to instruct the Israelites regarding God's statues and laws. Unlike the previous few portions, however, God's commands in Behar are meant for the entirety of the Israelite people, not just the priests.
God promises heaps of reward and blessing for following the statues.
God prefaces all of the blessings with this verse: If you walk in my statues, and keep my commandments, and do them... For 10 verses, God goes on at length about the various gifts that will be bestowed upon us should we follow God's commandments. In flowery language uncharacteristic of the Torah, God promises rain in its due season, plenty of food, peace in the land, the removal of wild beasts, death of enemies, the establishment of a covenant, a holy presence in the tabernacle, and a University of Georgia National Championship.
Ok, God does not promise a football title, but it seems that God certainly makes these laws desirable.
After these 10 verses that fill us with hope and excitement, enticing us for the sweet carrot of reward that God promises, God tells us what will happen if we do not follow the commandments.
But if you will not listen to me, and will not do all these commandments ...
For the next 26 verses, God threatens us with horrible punishments that will befall us should we not obey. Here is just one of the punishments:
I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and fever, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart; and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.
Blessing and curse, reward and punishment. God promises both. But as the end of Deuteronomy teaches us, the choice is up to us. In one of his last speeches, Moses tells us to choose life.
Reform Judaism continues to struggle with these images of divine reward and punishment. The psalmist reminds us that the wicked flourish like grass. Many of us have experienced unfair tragedy and pain despite living righteously. We may not experience a reality of God rewarding and punishing us on granular level that the Torah would have us believe.
In fact, Reform Judaism has excised an entire paragraph out of the V'ahavhta because of this issue. Similar to this Torah portion, that paragraph of the V'ahavta provides a detailed list of rewards and punishments relating to our observance of the commandments. This paragraph is not in the Union Prayer Book. It is not in Gates of Prayer, and it is also not to be found in our current siddur, Mishkan T'fillah.
So what do we do with these themes of God's promises of unbridled reward and God's threats of harsh punishment?
Let's go back to the third verse in the portion, which states If you walk in my statues and keep my commandments. Note the verb; If you walk in my statutes...
I think that this is important. The word halachah is used to describe the system of Jewish laws, the collection of the 613 Mitzvot as described in the Torah and debated in the Talmud. Halachah comes from the same root as the verb in our verse, taylaychu. Both have to do with walking. Halachah is commonly translated as the path, in that it is the path of holiness that each of us walks when we perform Mitzvot.
This conception helps me with the theologically troubling issue of divine reward and retribution. God may not dole out prizes and punishments based on our specific actions, but each of our actions are part of our life, our journey, our path. Each of us decides where we will walk, not God. It is up to us to read the Torah and determine its worth for our lives. Judaism teaches us that this choice is constant, and the choice depends solely on each of us. It doesn't just happen once. This is halachah, the path of Jewish holiness.
Lao Tzu remarked that every journey begins with a single step. Each of our steps can lead to us walking further down a path of holiness. Each step can be part of blessing or curse. Let us choose the path of life, that each of our steps is part of a glorious halachah.