Behar-Bechukotai: Responsibility and Trust

In this episode, I use the parshiot of Behar & Bechukotai to explore the boundaries of responsibility and trust. This was inspired by a week of conversation about the tragedy at Mount Meron.

A member of my community has a love-hate relationship with my speeches. On the one hand, he regularly asks me to speak for longer. On the other, he complains that I sound far too much like a Baptist Minister when I do speak.

The Baptist part isn’t accidental. I take the Chumash very seriously and very literally in terms of Hashkafah (guiding philosophy). Discovering the consistent Hashkafah within Chumash has not been simple and the process has reinvented me on a number of levels – including politically.

Because of my way of reading, my very literal reading, I’ve normally spoken about these two parshiot in a very straightforward way.

The Torah promises blessing. If we meet the conditions, there will be blessing.

And the Torah promises curse. Again, if we meet the conditions, there will be curse.

Not only do I read the promises seriously, but I see our present curses as messages we are meant to learn from.

In year’s past, this has often been about particular curses.

I wrote a few years ago, quoting one of the curses:

And I will break the pride of your power and I will give you a heaven like iron and earth like copper. (Vayikra 26:19)

Remarkably, in Parshat Ki Tavo, there is a mirror curse:

thy heaven shall be copper and the earth below you shall be iron. And Hashem will make the rain of your land dust and smoke. From heaven it will come down upon you, until you are destroyed. (Dev 28: 23-24)

 

These two curses speak of a heaven and earth which are iron and copper.

In Chumash, iron is connected with war. Copper, on the other hand, serves utilitarian purposes. The snake, which shares the root of Nachash with copper, is a tool of G-d (both in the garden and when the people must look at the copper snake to escape plague). It is a tool meant to educate us.

In these curses, the earth and sky are filled with war; war meant to teach us painful lessons. Today, we cheer on the Kipat Barzel, the iron dome – but it represents the fulfillment of a curse. Our skies are filled with iron and war. And our enemies dig tunnels, filling the earth below with much the same thing.

The reality that surrounds us is meant to teach us; but I am afraid we are not learning lessons.

And so, we have had six years of drought. Our rain is dust and smoke. In 2015, we had the worst sand storm in our modern nation’s history. Another massive sandstorm struck in 2017. Internationally, increasing numbers mobilize for boycotts against our people. They threaten to rob us of our livelihoods and the work of our hands. And this is only the beginning.

This is where, by the way, a member of my community got the Baptist part from.

I wrote that before Corona, and before Meron.

Last week, I wrote something about Meron. I didn’t share it through, beyond a few people. As you can imagine, it was not subtle. I did share it at the Mincha Shiur at my shul though. And we talked and argued about it some. One of the other people there, a Rabbi with a Modern perspective, objected to what I said on the basis of the idea that – when it came down to it Hashem wasn’t involved in what happened to us on the scale of our daily lives or even Mount Meron.

In other words, it really had nothing to do with G-d.

In the aftermath of that conversation, and a few others, I began to see something I’d never seen before. I suppose it might be obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me.

What did I see?

 

Let’s go back almost to the very beginning, I saw that Adam and Chava are expelled from the Garden of Eden not because they ate of the forbidden fruit but because, when challenged, they failed to take responsibility.

And almost immediately afterwards, Cain is challenged by a desire to kill his brother and Hashem says (to paraphrase) sin desires him, but because of that he can rule over it. The very urge to do evil can strengthen us.

There is a sense, from very early on, that a lack of responsibility leads to curse while its counterpoint can preserve blessing.

But what is responsibility in these cases? In the case of Adam and Chava, it is owning your own actions.

In the case of Cain, it is something very different indeed. Cain is being challenged to bend reality, even the reality of his own desires, into something better.

 

These two kinds of responsibility – one that prevents our own acts of destruction and one which acknowledges our role afterwards – are key to preserving blessing. In a way, each of them draws us closer to Hashem – the creator. By controlling our reality, we act in the path of the divine. And by acknowledging the control we have, we are brought closer still to Hashem.

You could say the commandment to put railings on rooftops is the culmination of this path. We must take responsibility to prevent accidents from every occurring.

 

But, of course, that isn’t the whole picture.

Again and again, the Torah tells us to trust in Hashem and we’ll be blessed.

Again and again, it tells us that if we fail to acknowledge the divine we will find ourselves cursed.

Again and again, the Torah tells us to ignore our reality – and that doing so will lead to blessing.

Is this responsibility?

 

In the aftermath of the Meron disaster I read people wondering how they could suffer so given that they were under the protection of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai himself. Setting aside the dependency on a man, rather than G-d himself, and you can still see a microcosm of this challenge.

Which reality are we in? The reality of railings – in which we need to take responsibility – or the reality of bitachon in which we simply trust in G-d?

Is it the perspective of the Baptist Minister or the Modern Rabbi?

 

This Torah portion captures the Baptist side powerfully. People look at the blessings and the curses, but it more than that. The financial aspects are critical as well.

I’ve often thought about teaching a finance course. I never will, but I’d start such a course by explaining what is natural and what is engineered.

Interest is natural. If you loan somebody something, they may not pay you back. You may not be around to be paid back. All sorts of things could go wrong. To compensate for that, we have interest.

Interest is natural. It is a factoring in of risk.

You could say it is responsible.

 

Likewise, if you buy farmland – or any other asset – you pay more for what it can deliver in the short-term. The longer you have to wait until the payoff, the less the asset is worth. This is akin to a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush.

Risk is natural and so interest and the time value of money are natural.

Paying less for long-term returns is responsible.

 

And yet these parshiot tell us not to do either one. When we buy land, we assume every year until the Jubilee will be a good year and we pay up front for those good years with no discount for time. (Lv. 25:16)

And when we loan money, we collect no interest. (Lv. 25:36).

 

We seem to directly ignore risk. We seem to be spitting in the face of the natural.

How can this be squared with a world in which we are supposed to be responsible?

What is the difference between the rooftop railing and the charging of interest?

 

One could argue it is only money, after all a railing is about life but a loan is just food… but people buy food with money.

One could argue one is sacrificing only your self-interest by overpaying for land or not charging interest. Or you could argue that when you buy land, or loan money, you have cash to spare. And so, there is little fundamental risk to you.

Of course, your own self-interest includes the interests of your family and your children. It can include the interests of relatives who need your help. And, of course, having spare cash now is no guarantee of having it later. There is risk. There is always risk. It is a near constant in our universe.

It is entropy, a fundamental concept of our reality.

If the laws of our universe are G-d’s nefesh – the way in which He acts in our world, just like our blood is our body’s nefesh – then entropy is as fundamentally a part of Hashem’s nefesh as anything else that exists.

Risk is the way of things in the reality G-d has created.

 

So, what is the difference?

When do we trust and when do we take responsibility?

One might think it is about specific risks. The rooftop railing has a specific danger, the future is far more general. But we know the future risks of farmland. There is a risk the rains won’t come. That’s specific enough, isn’t it?

When we come to the blessings and curses the question is even starker. When we are blessed, we aren’t simply given food. We have to grow grain to eat. But we grow grain even when we don’t need it – because we are eating very old grain. We produce, create, in the image of G-d – even when we don’t need to in order to survive. We never simply trust G-d to give us food.

This is the image of the Modern Rabbi.

Except we do.

We don’t work the land on the Sabbatical year and G-d promises us we will harvest enough to tide us over the year before. We still work the land the other six years, but we abstain on the seventh and Hashem provides for us.

This is the image of the Baptist Minister – or perhaps the Chassidic Rebbe.

 

At the same time, when we are cursed, even though we work we have no yield. “You shall sow your seed in vain.”

We take responsibility, but we see no results.

What is the constant here? Is it work? Is it responsibility? Is it trust?

 

For me, the answer comes down to the definition of a word: mitigation.

In finance, you define mitigation in a very particular way. You mitigate a risk by spreading it. You can invest in a broad portfolio. Or you can hedge. Or you can charge interest and thus mitigate the risk of a borrower paying you back. Mitigation is the essence of financial engineering. Mitigation is the act of spreading risk.

But in everyday life, mitigation means something else. It means reducing risk. A rooftop railing reduces the risk of falling. Planting a crop reduces the risk of starvation.

Financial mitigation brings future risk into present reality. It establishes it. It makes it concrete. Interest on a loan and the time value of money make risk real.

Everyday mitigation prevents future risk from ever occurring. It is resistance to entropy.

When you loan without interest you are denying the reality of risk. The risk is there, but you aren’t making it concrete. You are trusting that it will never become reality.

 

But a risk is a risk, right? A lack of rainfall isn’t so different from a child falling off a roof.

Bad things happen.

 

But there is a difference. You use financial mitigation when everyday mitigation is unavailable.

You spread risk when you can’t stop it.

 

You can’t control rainfall, and so you use financial mitigation and pay less for farmland.

You can prevent falls, and so you use everyday mitigation to put a railing on a roof.

 

The difference between these two situations is control.

 

Where we have control, we have a responsibility – a Torah responsibility – to exercise it.

That especially includes self-control – as we see with Cain.

This is how we act in the image of G-d, who has control.

 

But when we lack such control? Then, we trust in Hashem. The people in the desert had no access to food. They had to trust that Hashem would provide for them – they couldn’t save the Ma’an for a rainy day. The people in the land can plant crops – and so they must in order to continue in the cycle of blessing.

 

It is within this context that we use everyday mitigation in the financial sphere.

We loan money to the poor so they can eat. We prevent a risk we can control, even as we ignore the risk we can’t – that they will be unable to pay us back.

 

But we go even further than this. We use the opposite of financial mitigation. We not only fail to charge interest, we fail to maximize our own profits.

We spread our blessings – instead of our risks.

We leave the gleanings of our vineyards or the corners of our fields – we spread blessing.

 

We use our gifts to overcome the entropy of the world. We step outside the risks of time.

Perhaps, this inverse of financial mitigation is holiness.

 

We use our blessings to connect to Hashem – not working on the Shabbat or Shmita or Chagim.

We use our blessings to help the less fortunate.

We use our blessings to offer Korbanot.

We restrict ourselves, in all manner of ways, in order to connect to G-d.

 

This is all Holiness, the spreading of blessing so that we can touch the timeless.

The using of blessing to touch the timeless.

 

Perhaps this is what we should aim for. Everyday mitigation is our basic responsibility. We have to plant crops, prevent ourselves from doing evil, put railings on rooftops and even have an army. These are acts that are good – they are creative and they resist evil.

And holiness is also our responsibility. We have to observe the Shabbat, keep Kosher and give Tzedakah. We can’t collect interest – which is the inverse of holiness.

 

So, what of blessings and curses?

Perhaps the blessings and curses reflect Hashem’s response to our actions.

If we do not practice everyday mitigation, we suffer everyday risks. No rooftop railings leads to accidents. No self-control in society leads to a society of violence and destruction. These are risks that lay within our control.

If we do not practice holiness? Then we face a reality beyond our control. We face the loss of blessing and the amplification of curse. We put up banisters but they collapse.

When we practice financial mitigation we suffer the very risks we are trying to spread.

And when we practice holiness we enjoy the benefits of the blessings we have spread. Our crops yield ample fruit. Our ventures meet with success. Our courage is rewarded with success.

 

Early on, the Torah separates work from reward. We can earn without labor – as we do when lands are returned on the Yovel. And we can work without reward – as slaves do.

Reward is in the hands of Hashem, but work is within our hands.

 

So, perhaps the picture that emerges is a simple one.

We have to act responsibly – when dealing with that which is within our control.

And we have to trust in G-d – when dealing with that we cannot control.

Finally, when we are blessed, we must use those blessings to step outside the world of entropy and chaos.

Gradually, bit by bit, more and more of reality will fall under our control.

Gradually, bit by bit, that which we cannot control will fall away and entropy will recede.

 

I don’t think this reality applies everywhere and in every time. In Egypt we suffered through no fault or failure of our own. I believe the same was true in Germany.

But I do believe it applies in our land, when we govern – and thus have responsibility – for our own lives and our own people.

 

The need for responsibility grows.

 

If we are responsible, if we trust in G-d and if we spread our blessings, then we can merit the ultimate blessing of these Torah readings:

יא  וְנָתַתִּי מִשְׁכָּנִי, בְּתוֹכְכֶם; וְלֹא-תִגְעַל נַפְשִׁי, אֶתְכֶם.

And I will set My tabernacle among you, and My nefesh shall not abhor you.

 

I see a very simple concept here. Hashem will dwell among us and His entropy will be suspended.

We will live in a reality without uncontrollable risk.

 

Indeed, we will be G-dlike in our relationship to our world. Risk, risk that can only be spread not eliminated, that kind of risk, will retreat from our reality.

 

Perhaps the next verse – the final verse of blessing – captures this essence:

יב  וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי, בְּתוֹכְכֶם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם, לֵאלֹקִים; וְאַתֶּם, תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם.

And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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