Sermon Parshat Bechukotai 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
Last week I drove a U-Haul taking my son Boaz to his new home in Austin, Texas. Sort of on the way we chose to visit the extraordinary National Park at Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico. As a kid, Carlsbad Caverns was on the list of E-Ticket National Parks, along with the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Mt. Rushmore, a place you really wanted to see. But like Mt. Rushmore, it’s located exactly in the middle of nowhere. I did make a special detour on a cross-country trip long ago and saw Mt. Rushmore, but I had never before made it to Carlsbad Caverns.
I can tell you that it’s worth the schlep, even if that entails driving through the huge, empty lands of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico for many hours, as well as the visual wasteland that is west Texas. The cave formations are fantastic, the underground caverns are truly enormous in scale, and the fairy-land of magical, delicate rock configurations that appear to be made out of filigree and lace are amazing. I have seen many caves on several continents, including the extraordinary Kartchner Caverns right here near Tombstone, Arizona, of which an old friend of mine was the co-discoverer, and they are all interesting and beautiful. But this was astonishing, everything you imagine such an underground wonderland might be.
Perhaps my favorite formation of all was one entitled “Rock of Ages;” who knew that a Chanukah hymn, Ma’oz Tzur, inspired a discoverer in the early 20th century? What a gift our national parks are, and what a treasure for us and our descendants this magnificent land can be.
Which brings me to the Torah portion this week, the very end of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra, called Bechukotai. Bechukotai is a final, covenantal section that makes very explicit the agreement that God is making with the people of Israel, us: if we observe God’s commandments we will be richly rewarded with the title and prosperity of our own land of blessing. And if we do not fulfill God’s commandments we will be harshly punished and lose that land, at least in the short and perhaps medium term. It is a statement that presages the larger covenant created in Deuteronomy it says: if you do good you will be rewarded with land and happiness. If you do evil you will be punished in the worst ways you might imagine, including the loss of that land.
Bechukotai puts this contract baldly and very, very clearly. And that highlights the two most powerful, and possibly the only, real human motivations that exist: love and fear.
The truth is that most of us are motivated primarily by our fears. We get our work done out of the fear of failure. We do it well out of a fear of embarrassment. We hide our sins and errors because we are afraid of exposure. We spend most of our lives looking over our shoulders at something large gaining on us—a manifestation of fear. It is fear that drives most of us to succeed.
We see this in small, petty things as well as larger, more meaningful ones. We drive our cars just a little over the posted limit out of fear of speeding tickets. We file our taxes out of fear of the IRS. We change our diets out of fear of heart attacks or strokes or cancer—or obesity. We install security systems out of fear of intruders. We make many of the choices that affect our lives out of a fundamental emotion of fear.
Some fears are, of course irrational. I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s comment that, according to studies, the number one fear in America is public speaking. The number two fear is death. Which means that at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than doing the eulogy…
Some of those irrational fears impact our lives, of course. Some of us choose not to travel to Israel because we are afraid that bad things will happen to us, although no tourist has ever been injured by an attack. Some of us fail to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves because we are simply afraid.
What do you fear? What fears control your life? What fears limit and control your life?
Fear can seem beneficial at times. Fear helps limit the things we shouldn’t be doing in the first place—fear of exposure, or embarrassment, or humiliation. We limit ourselves out of the fear of the loss of relationships or status. Fear as a motivation can be powerful.
But fear is also temporary. What we fear in the moment can be swallowed up by other, quite different fears. Our fear of shame may be overturned by our fear of poverty. Our fear of embarrassment can be overcome by our fear of loss of status. Our fear of doing the wrong thing can be outweighed by our need to be accepted.
And fear also fades away in the absence of direct consequences. When we get away with things, we lose our fear of punishment or loss. When we do things we shouldn’t do repeatedly, or don’t do what we should do for a period of time, we gradually lose our fear of misconduct.
Space and time, too, lessen fear. A frightening moment becomes less so over time. It’s like those flashing red lights in the rear-view mirror: in the moment they frighten us, perhaps even change our driving habits for a while. Why, we might even slow down for a week or two. But over time, we lose that fear. Otherwise, we would need far fewer traffic police, and they would need only ticket each driver once in a lifetime.
Fear motivates everyone, to some degree—fear of embarrassment, fear of being wrong, fear of failure, fear of being refused. Sometimes even fear of success. Fear motivates—but erratically, and with rapidly diminishing returns. And fear can also paralyze us. Where real transformation is required, fear of change can prevent any movement at all.
Fear is based partly on experience, and partly on, well, just fear. It is an emotion that has a life of its own. As Franklin Roosevelt said during the Depression, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
[I’ve always wondered at that famous line. After all, at that time, America faced many things that were exceedingly frightening— unemployment of 30-40%, the Dust Bowl, starvation on the streets, the rise of Fascism in Europe, fanatics at home seeking revolution—a whole host of very real things to fear. There was a lot to fear beside fear itself.
And yet it turned out that we could overcome all those problems, and many more—provided we weren’t paralyzed by our fears. Provided we didn’t lock ourselves into a system of conduct that couldn’t change because of the habits perpetuated by fear. Provided we could learn from our mistakes, and change, and transform in ways that fear didn’t restrict.]
What if there was a different way?
What if there was a path, an approach to life that did not require fear. That came instead out of love? Judaism makes that promise as well: we are, after all, commanded to love God in the Ve’Ahavta, which we chanted tonight as part of the Shema, to love with all our heart, mind and soul, all our strength. If we act out of that love, we are promised, anything is indeed possible.
Love is actually stronger than fear. But first we must choose to motivated by love instead of fear.
Now—and this is the heart of the matter—think about what it is you truly love. Who do you really love? What matters most to you? What do you really value above all else?
So, what do you love? Deciding this can take some time—or no time at all. For most of us, we really do love our family members. We love some of our friends. We love some places, and some ideas. Find those people and those things, get them in mind, and keep them there.
Next, decide to commit to what you love. Really commit to it. To make it the most important thing in your life. Because the truth is, it is the most important thing in your life. Make that love, that ahavah, the source of the strength you need to change. Because when you make that choice to commit to what you love, to truly commit, then change is easy. When we make that commitment, to love, we also make a commitment to change what needs to be changed for the sake of that love.
Choose to make what you love the most important thing in your life, and act as though that were true. Do not be distracted from that course, not even by fear. Simply make that love your most important priority. Make that the heart of your actions. Make the truth of that love the guide for your actions.
If you act with complete commitment to what you love you will not fail. The changes you make may have unexpected outcomes—often, very good ones—but the very changes themselves will be for the good. Change through love means starting fresh—simply choosing to act through love, to open yourself to God and to those people and things you love—and so to find the best in yourself and others. It means simply choosing love over habit, commitment over transgression, choosing to act for the sake of the love that you are dedicated to.
And now the really great part about this: if you choose to be motivated by ahavah, by love, first decide what you love, truly commit to that love, and start to make changes based on that love—then our tradition teaches us that God will instantly help.
Erpah m’shuvatam—ohaveim n’davah, the prophet Hosea has God promise—I will heal them from their backsliding and I, God, will love them freely. When they come to me in love, I will heal them and love them unconditionally, for who they are now. More or less, it’s as easy as that.
When you make the decision to act from love rather than fear you will find that you are no longer shackled by routine or imprisoned by habit. You will find that the goals you seek come powerfully, directly, almost easily.
You will find that you are changing virtually without effort. That you are becoming someone who really is a little different. A little more loving. A little more open. A little better. A little holier.
Fear can work. But love—love can, and will, transform.
Poet Michael Leunig explains that:
There are only two feelings. Love and fear.
There only two languages. Love and fear.
There are only two activities. Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks,
Love and fear. Love and fear.
Bechukotai is focused on creating individuals, and an entire community and nation, who are truly good. It can be done by fear. But if we are to truly change, if we are to become the people we wish to be, if we are to fulfill God’s wishes and dreams for us, we must seek to do so through love.
May God give us the strength to love fully and to act from that love, and so to become the people, congregation and nation that we wish to be.