Thirteen years ago this week, as part of my bat mitzvah ceremony, I chanted and then offered commentary on eleven verses from B’chukotai, the week’s Torah portion. This portion is the conclusion to the book of Leviticus, in which God has just communicated the bulk of the Torah’s mitzvoth (commandments) for Jewish living.
As I prepared for my bat mitzvah, I chose to focus on the first eleven lines of the portion, which proclaim the blessings and bounty we will enjoy if we live lives that embody Jewish values. Or rather, I should say that I chose to stay as far away as possible from the next section, in which God admonishes us that if we fail to fulfill the commandments, God will castigate us with assorted miserable punishments. As a committed Reform Jew, I felt my life embodied Jewish values, but I wasn’t prepared to examine the ways in which my deviation from the letter of specific mitzvot and might merit curses and misery.
For those of us—and those of our students—who have solidified our enduring commitments to Jewish life, we have found myriad focal points for our relationships with Judaism. We may enjoy our weekly fill of challah and socializing at Shabbat gatherings. We may demonstrate deeply held Jewish values through advocacy or service. We may enthusiastically speak Hebrew or Yiddish together; or celebrate and advocate for Israel; or pray deeply and joyfully; or gather for text studies…
In other words, regardless of variations in literal observance of mitzvot, we are committed to Jewish life. Just as God says those who live Jewishly “will eat your fill and dwell securely in your land” (Leviticus 26:5), we are fulfilled and sustained by the richness of our Jewish lives.
Yet, as Hillel professionals it is our job to get to know students who experience Judaism differently—students who have not yet made enduring commitments to Jewish life. They are often self-conscious of the fact that Jewish commandments aren’t central to their daily lives, and they fear that more actively-involved Jewish students will accuse them of being “bad Jews” (even preemptively calling themselves “bad Jews” before others can hurl that particular insult). Many of these students can relate to the thirteen-year-old bat mitzvah student who was intimidated and overwhelmed by the messages Judaism sent her.
In the Admonition section of Parashat B’chukotai, I shivered through threats of fever, wild beasts, destruction, pestilence, famine, defeat, heartsickness and more in Leviticus 26:16-39. But even though the students who hold Judaism at arm’s length can’t peg their fears to such specific biblical verses, their concerns are often more deep-seated than my own because they are not diluted as mine were by a milieu of positive Jewish associations. Rather, many of these students lack an adequate base of Jewish memories, knowledge, and friends to serve as their alternative Jewish focal points. To them, the intimidating stuff is all that is salient. Therefore, perceiving too daunting a hurdle to Jewish involvement, they remain unanchored by the traditions and community that are theirs by birthright.
As I read B’chukotai now, I see a few connections between the experiences of these students and the state of affairs portended in The Admonition. As consequences for lack of commitment to Jewish life, God says, “I will scatter you among the nations” (Leviticus 26:33). For those who still do not repent, “the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight” (Leviticus 26:36), and “…though you eat, you shall not be satisfied” (Leviticus 26:26). While I don’t argue that the Diaspora is a punishment to a wayward Jewish community, it is a fact that our students’ lives are substantially if not wholly integrated within secular society. In the context of this reality, students face a slew of competing messages about what their priorities, value systems, and worldviews should look like. It may not be a punishment but simply a reality that those who lack connection to a tradition that elevates one set of values and way of living above others can find themselves buffeted about like a leaf blown by wind.
As college students seek to clarify their identities, they are on a search for meaning. The wisdom in this week’s Torah portion suggests that those who turn to their Jewish identities will find a wholeness and holiness that may continue to elude those who turn away from their traditions. Our job is to help the anchorless, unengaged students enrich their search for meaning through connections with Judaism. The final verses of this section of B’chukotai shed light on how to approach that task.
After declaring the multitude of possible ways to rebuke us for turning away from Judaism, God asserts that, “even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God” (Leviticus 26:44). In fact, Stanley T. Schickler points out in his 1997 piece in Living Torah: Selections from Seven Years of Torat Chayim that God actually invokes the covenant five times in Leviticus 26: 42-45. Schickler says, “it is as if God is emphasizing, even as the consequences get worse and worse, that the covenant still exists; it is not abrogated, no matter now sinful we are, no matter how wayward. The b’rit is always ‘there for the taking,’ always awaiting our return; the covenant is always there to support us.”
Today’s anchorless college students may not hear this message on their own. But through our relationships with students, we can facilitate students’ cultivation of their own relationships with Judaism. If they feel unsafe making a commitment to Jewish life in one leap, beginning a relationship with another person is a much more manageable step. It is then incumbent upon us, as Hillel professionals, to follow in God’s footsteps. We must create a relationship with each student that will always be there for the student when she turns to it. As students undertake the profound journey from disaffection to enduring commitment, it is our job to follow through every step of the way, helping them find fulfillment and sustenance.
Prepared by Robin Weber, associate for Jewish experience in the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning
Additional commentaries and text studies on Bechukotai at MyJewishLearning.com.