Saturday, May 20, 2023

"We have met the enemy..."

 I’ve been reflecting a lot on a few verses from one of the final chapters of Leviticus, the Biblical book known as D’varim in Hebrew, specifically Chapter 26.  The chapter begins this way:

Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the Lord your God.
Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.

The words echo the familiar injunctions from Mt. Sinai:

“You shall have no other Gods before me; You shall not make sculptured images of anything; you shall not bow down and worship them; you shall not serve them; you shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

The next section of verses seem to be a list of the rewards for life lived in close observance of all the laws that have been set down.  The prayer, “Ahavat Olam,” sung on Shabbat, affirms that those laws were given and received in love: Ahavat olam, beyt Israel ameha ahavta.  Torah umitzvot, chukim umishpatim otanu limadeta. (With everlasting love,  you love the house of Israel. Torah and mitzvot, laws and justice you have taught us…)

Rabbi Shefa Gold reminds us that the Hebrew name for this portion of Leviticus is B’chukotai.  In her book, Torah Journeys, she suggests that it might be translated as “by my rules.” So no matter how strange the words of Leviticus are in our ears, often seemingly irrelevant for modern life,  the faith tradition affirms that they were given in love and in the promise that if Israel lived “by the rules”  life would be abundantly blessed and good: 

"If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.
“‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country."

The promise of God’s covenant with the people is renewed here. The Divine Presence would dwell among the people in what seems to be a very intimate way:

“I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you… I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be with you."

And then there is a big “BUT…

 “‘BUT if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands,  and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant,  then I will do this to you...  
And the next few verses are a long list of the devastating consequences of failure to live carefully within the  “Torah umitzvot, chukim, umishpatim,” the wisdom and obligations and laws of justice that were given in love:

I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.   If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of your land yield their fruit…

The promise of dire consequences for not paying attention to the stewardship of the land continue on for another  20 or so verses until we come to another very big BUT…

BUT if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me,  which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 

I was thinking about these verses across last weekend as a Climate Action Event was held out at the Ag Hall.  Hundreds of people flocked to the site where dozens of local climate activist groups were represented, each one providing information and challenge to the island population relative to our care for the planet, our responsible stewardship of this fragile earth that is suffering so mightily as a result of humanity’s terrible abuse and neglect of this beautiful world.

  As climate awareness events like this proliferate in the attempt to make earth’s population more aware of what our responsibilities are to the planet, I wondered if this may be a dim shadow of the tshuva, the beginnings of the acts of repentance and reconciliation that earth’s people need to be doing with the planet.  I do not personally believe in a "reward and punishment" God who punishes bad behavior.  But I do believe that the laws guiding Israel toward good stewardship of the land make sense and there are dire consequences for not paying attention to wise and loving principles set down so long ago. 

 War, regressive politics, population movements, natural disasters and on and on all have in common the human failing to ignore the basic elements of stewardship of the planet, the failure to keep the earliest command to not create idols, to observe the broad implications of a well kept Sabbath, to venerate this earth as a sanctuary for the holy.  The consequences are devastating.

BUT - there is still the promise of the covenant - a divine principle if you will - that continues to stand:
“Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord.

It seems that Earth’s people are indeed “in the land of their enemies” - - but in the 21st century, as Pogo once famously said, "we have met the enemy and it is us."  So - it seems that no matter what -  and no matter how we, in our finitude, understand it, there is hope. The covenant stands - - but it does require two partners.  

Vicky Hanjian

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