Dvar Torah B’Chukotai
B’chukotai is my bar mitzvah parsha. Long ago in 1971 I started my bar mitzvah training, when Edmonton’s local radio station CHED played The Rolling Stone’s Brown Sugar, Three Dog Night’s hit was Joy to the World, and Ringo released his solo song It Don’t Come Easy.
Music was important to me now, as it was then, and it drew me into every nook and cranny – from how the drums sounded different for different bands, to the verse-chorus structure of a pop song that made it so easy to hear it over and over, to why certain chord changes sounded sad and others inspiring or joyful. Thus began my lifelong love of music, what it is, how it works, and why it can have such a profound effect on other people.
In my parents shul, the cantor taught Torah trope by rote. He recorded it onto a cassette tape (remember those?) and it was basically my job to memorize it. I had figured out there were markings in the Chumash that gave clues to how to leyn from the Torah but since the Torah doesn’t have those, memorization was the path to go. It wasn’t until our own kids had their bar mitzvahs that I learned how to read those trop markings and how interesting they are.
B’Chukotai is a difficult parsha (but not as bad a Tazria, as Carol-Ann has sung about). It begins with the blessings that will come about if yudim follow the commandments. Rain will come in its season, and security of food supply and person are assured.
The next section though is quite different. It’s called the Tochecha – the warning, the admonition. The Tochecha describes (in great detail) the consequences of not following the chukim. Because they are starkly negative, the tradition is to read this section quickly and quietly, not the news that a show-offy 12 year old wanted to hear!
But the consequences described in the tochecha are indeed dire; your seeds will not grow; your skies will be like iron, and your land like copper. We’re no doubt reminded of Rabbi Dina Hasida’s profound translation of V’haya Im Shemoah, a paragraph after the Shema, that if we put toxins in our air, land and water they will return as poisons in our food.
B’chukotai means “In my chukim”. Chukim are supposed to be the least inaccessible of the commandments in the Torah, the ones we must follow regardless if we understand the wisdom behind them. Yet as we understand more about how the earth’s ecosystem works, the powers of underground fungal networks, the cycle of water, and the role of the jet stream, what might have once seemed as inexplicable chukim appear as wisdom, old wisdom that seems that we only discover the truth over time.
This is one of the amazing insights about the Torah, and the Zohar – that they hold insights that seem mysterious at the time, but reveal their truth long after. As a bar mitzvah I had just an inkling of this, enough to fuel a dvar Torah about consequence, that perhaps in a time when science was unknown, and so many earthly actions seemed mysterious, the writers of the Torah had to create an idea of an all-powerful G-d just to get a nation to act well, to be a community, and to build sustainable food systems. Now though as our grasp of science and technology – the gates of earthly wisdom – are opening, we can make Chukim, like Edot and Mishpatim, comprehensible, and to follow them not only because the all-powerful One says we must, but we ourselves also have the capability to see the good in sustainability, how all things in nature and the environment are connected, and the consequences on the land when we lose sight of that. I often wonder how the writers of the Torah could have been so far ahead of their time.
Another important and uncomfortable part of the parsah Bechukotai (Vayika 27:2) is about redemption of oaths. “When any party explicitly vows to יהוה the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply:
|1mo – 5 yrs||male||5|
|1mo – 5 yrs||female||3|
So it costs roughly 50-100% more to redeem a male than a female, and a child is redeemed at about 1/10 an adult. All the commentaries I have found about this take the similar approach – that this assessment to be relieved of the life-vow is proportioned our based on the value of a person’s labour; that presumably men are stronger than women therefore worth more, and children, youth, and elders are worth less than an adult in their prime 20-60 years.
With all due respect to the learned rabbi’s I think this is an incorrect way to interpret the value put on various people to be redeemed from their oath. It just seems unlikely to me that the highest value of contribution to the temple is physical strength. It seems to me that this interpretation of value was strongly colored by the rabbis’ ideas of paid work, and of course of their privilege of being able to spend their lives reading and arguing about Torah while other people built buildings, grew food, and raised children.
If it’s not by the worth of their labour that the Torah assesses each person’s vow redemption, then why the disparity? To explain that, first a story;
A few years ago I was in a seminar run by Jessie Nelson of Kith+Co, a seminar about how to work in an inclusive culture where trans people will be happy, included and productive. It was a seminar about privilege.
It began with all 100 or so of us in the room, and being a seminar we all had name badges. Some folks came and collected all our name badges, and then they randomly redistributed tham back to us and put them back on. Then we were put into small groups, with a topic to discuss, but we had to address each other by the name on the badge, even if you knew their “real” name. We had the experience of being referred to in a way that did not feel real, did not feel like oneself.
Then we were shuffled into new groups and the exercise repeated with a new topic. Then we returned to our seats.
Jessie asked how we felt being addressed by the name on the badge instead of our own name. Naturally there was widespread discomfort, and it made it hard to think clearly and be as articulate when part of your mind was dealing with the idea that these people were not talking to “me” but to the label I’ve been arbitrarily assigned. Jessie pointed out that feeling is what many trans people feel everyday. There was a long silence.
Then they asked – “How many people got their own name badge back?” About half a dozen folks slowly raised their hands. They asked, “How did it feel to have your name when everyone around you didn’t?” and they asked, “What did you do when you realized you got your own name back?” – and the answer was, “nothing.” Did you let someone know that you perhaps mistakenly got your own name back? No. Did you say anything in your group? No. Jessie said, “That’s completely human, completely typical, but that’s privilege”
By any definition I have a lot of privilege. I grew up in a middle-class home with two loving parents, I got to go to Hebrew school, I have a brain that likes to solve the kind of problems they give you in school, I’ve had the chances to attend university and get work at companies who value the things my brain can do, While I’ve faced anti-semitism and ignorance, it’s never been to the extent where I was physically in danger. I’m a cis-gendered straight, white Jewish male, and I’ve got it good.
Jessie’s seminar showed us many things about inclusivity and equity. They pointed out that what’s important about privilege is not that you have it, but what you do with it. This seems a very Jewish point of view to me. There are times we need and hope to receive and there are times we have abundance and have a duty to give.
So, how is this related to how much a person is worth in this parsha of Bechukotai? It seems plainly incorrect to me to think that the Torah is setting these values because of the ability to perform physical labour. That very Marxist idea of capitalism doesn’t seem at play here, since the duties around the temple would be quite varied, and physical strength doesn’t seem to me to be the primary consideration of the value of a person to the temple.
Here’s the thing; instead of thinking of the redemption as significant the worth of a person, measured by how much physical work they can do, consider this;
Perhaps the Torah is assessing redemption based on debt, on how much a person has received from Hashem, and the assessment is repayment of that debt, of contributing back to the One the amount of indebtedness a person has accrued to that point in their life. So a 30-year old male has received a lot of privilege, in terms of inheritance and possession of land, while a baby hardly has created any debt to the community. Some interesting consequences;
- A baby and child up to 5 years old has 1/10 the debt of an adult
- Women across the board have accrued 30-50% less debt than men
- People over 60’s debt is reduced, not because they can’t lift as much but because they are now giving back to the family in wisdom, babysitting, and perspective
Treating the redemption of vows as debt literally turns the table on the traditional interpretation of labour-as-value. It’s not surprising in retrospect that generations of white male rabbi’s should have come to this perspective, but we at Or Shalom love the Holy Chutzpah of being able to question these traditions and view Torah through the lens of today’s values.
I’m grateful for the many people in my life who have helped me broaden my perspective. Community was important as I gathered with my friends for my bar-mitzvah, and it remains an important part of how I work to repay the olam for the many gifts I have received.