Those who will have the opportunity to attend synagogue services this Saturday during another corona-impacted Shabbat, will perhaps hear (or struggle to hear as we will see) one of the most harsh and difficult passages of the Torah.
There, across a near thirty verses in the Torah portion Bechukotai, we will bear witness to some most frightening curses and punishments that are destined to strike the Jewish people should they not observe the decrees and commandments given to them.
Many synagogues have the tradition to read through this most uncomfortable, overtly threatening section in a lower tone, somewhat quietly. And quickly. Others keep the volume up, reading no differently than they would any other part of the Torah.
What’s going on here? Why the change? Why is this Torah portion different from other Torah portions?
For those who would read these verses in regular fashion, there is a desire for everyone to hear of the responsibility that sits with each and every one of us. The way we lead our lives, the way we raise and teach our children, the way we relate to the poor, the sick, the unlucky. Whether we keep our moral compass well-serviced or allow it to become unreliable or unusable. This Shabbat we resound the warning to everyone who will listen – take heed now or take your chances with war, famine, desolation, disease, death and despair.
Still – there are the others who lower their voices. Read this in a near whisper. They, like us all, are painfully aware that a Torah given to us thousands of years ago could sadly not have been more accurate. We have at times strayed from that ancient path and we have forgotten how to treat each other, our communities, our people, our fellow global citizens and we have already seen the warnings, the pain and the devastation come to life. Several times and in many generations.
Say those who would read this all quietly – we should be ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated. It is too difficult to witness these failures. These things that we would read once as warnings but surely unlikely scenarios, have become scars and black marks on the landscape of Jewish history.
Thus, what is perhaps most striking in all this is not what is written there and what is said, but rather how we chant it, sing it, present it. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
If we needed some sort of proof that God intended us to be planful and intentional in these personal and professional interactions, he bookends the said curses with promise, prosperity, potential and positivity. Preceded with poetic visions of peace, security, fine produce and God’s warm presence among them, the list of curses and destruction ends with ואף גם זאת (despite all this), you as a people are neither forgotten nor rejected. The covenant between us remains strong and eternal.
The message you give to a child you seek to discipline or a caution or reprimand you find yourself needing to give to a colleague or staff person, should be accompanied by language and tone that can also encourage, empower, strengthen and reassure.
We should never handle the people we love nor the people with whom we work with wanton or reckless disregard for how the message we seek to give will be heard, interpreted, understood and internalized.
In the fields in which we are expected to lead and mentor, we must be primed to provide necessary feedback and direction in response to fiasco, failure and disappointment but it should be cushioned between promise, guidance and trust at the outset and culminate with genuine, tangible and personal (re)connection whenever possible.