I’m often asked when it was I knew I wanted to be a rabbi. Looking back on my journey, I’d say it was in 8th grade, just around my Bat Mitzvah. I was already hooked on Judaism by that time and wanted to lead anything I was allowed to lead for this celebration, and everyone told me “you’re going to be a rabbi.” But what thirteen year old wants to do what everyone tells them to do? I may have enjoyed it, but it wasn’t “cool” to love Hebrew school or Judaism, and I found myself torn between wanting to act with passion for Judaism and trying to fit in with the “too cool for school” attitude of my peers.
I will be the first to admit that Jewish studies aren’t often a priority with adolescents, but even as adults we sometimes find ourselves at a crossroads, caught in the shallow space between fulfilling an obligation reluctantly but with purpose and fulfilling an obligation with emptiness out of habit. Either way, we’re left with the question of how to make Judaism meaningful.
This week, in parshat Behokotai, the Israelite nation is receiving the final laws of the book ofVayikra, which detail specifically how we should treat one another in various relationships and how we should connect to God. The Israelites have only been out of Egypt for a short period of time, and during this first taste of freedom, they are in their stubborn and rebellious adolescent years. God, as the dutiful parent, tries every which way to implore the Israelites to keep the mitzvot. God tries to use Love and Logic in giving consequences that fit the actions as we saw in parshat Yitro. God tries the anger tactic as exhibited when the Israelites build the golden calf. Now, God brings on the threats. God makes it clear to the Israelites in chapter 26, verse 21 that “if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.”
The word that God uses for “hostility” is Keri, a word that does not appear in this form anywhere else in the Bible. In order to know what keri really means, we must also understand the so-called “hostile behavior” the Israelites were exhibiting. One interpretation is that the Israelites are acting out like teenagers might. God has brought them this far, but they want to test the limits, so they do the opposite of what they are told to do to establish their autonomy.
The commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand the word keri to come from the word mikreh, or “chance.” They describe the Israelites’ behavior as only observing God’s ways when it is convenient for them. Actions are easy when they bring great reward to you and your family, but when you can’t see the immediate consequences or when you don’t trust that something good will result, it is more difficult to uphold rules.
This verse seems to imply that the Israelites are acting not out of love or spiritual connection, but rather out of a place of cold, disconnected obligation. God has given the Israelites a life of promise, and they continue to act out of pure self interest instead of out of love for one another or God. And it appears as though God has reached the breaking point.
True, we might not love everything we are obligated to do, but the assumption that nothing is worth doing unless there is personal gain involved just creates resentment and hostility. In this week’s parshah, God is asking us to think about our motives; if we continue to act out of our own selfish needs, then hostility and emptiness will reign over us. If we can move beyond the wall of “chance” and find meaning and passion in our daily tasks, if we can push ourselves past acting out of spite or the need to establish autonomy, then we might be surprised by the learning, love, and joy that comes forth.
1. What is one example of how you can add personal meaning and passion to mitzvot?
2. Mikreh is sometimes translated as “coincidence,” which we often think of as positive. Can you think of a way in which a coincidence could negatively affect a relationship?