The Evolving God of Our Understanding: B’har-B’chukotai
B’har-B’chukotai: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
The last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus, B’chukotai, begins with: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” [Lev. 26:3] and continues with defining for us all the rewards God will bestow upon us for doing so. It then goes on to say: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules… and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…” [Lev. 26:14-16] and proceeds to graphically detail all the punishments that would result from such behavior.
That God deals in rewards and punishments, however, is an idea that no longer works for the overwhelming majority of modern western thinkers. This anachronistic idea has brought many to abandon religion altogether. The thought that righteous behavior yields success, prosperity and peace, and sinful behavior brings disease, poverty and fear—though it might have influenced the people of antiquity—is no longer useful; for it is simply not true. But the solution is not so much that religion needs to be done away with along with this ancient notion of God; rather we might be able to save both by awakening to a new idea of God—to “evolve” God to meet our modern minds. Why? Because at the source of the old biblical concept of a punishing or rewarding God lies the outdated notion that the Divine is solely otherworldly; a Great Puppeteer separated from His Creation.
“Evolving” God to a new understanding is exactly what our sages did several hundred years ago. Already at the time of the Renaissance, sixteenth century mystics like Rabbi Moses Cordovero or Rabbi Isaac Luria of the kabbalistic school of Safed in northern Israel, presented a revolutionary nondual theology. With it, the idea of God as exclusively “out there,” external to, or other than, the manifest Universe was replaced by a vision of God which—while still recognizing its transcendent aspect—added the notion that God is not only fully present in the manifest Universe, but that He is that Universe through and through. Two hundred years later, at the dawn of Modernity, the founding figure of Chassidism; Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov, 1698-1760) and his many successors in the Chassidic movement, made this nondual, panentheistic theology the central pillar of their belief system, defining God through “negative theology” which claimed that there is no one that God is not, no where that God is not, no when that God is not, nothing that God is not.
With an idea of God better fitting to our twenty first century sensitivities, rooted in Kabbalah and early Chassidism, we come back to the biblical text with a different set of eyes. Wearing our nondual reading glasses we recognize that, in this story, God is the bestower of reward and the rewarded, the punisher and the punished all at once. We come to realize that one of the deeper teaching available in our text is that, inherent in Creation, is the existence of light and darkness, pleasure and pain; and that both are expressions of the Divine One. This dualistic experience is simply par for the course of our lives. The more we resist it, the more we seek to exclusively experience the light, want only happiness and rewards, the more we set ourselves up for suffering. The true reward of the spiritual path—of taking up the covenant—however, lies in the acceptance that our lives are a series of “acts of God” some fortunate, others tragic, that we neither cause nor have control over. As we let go of our need for our human experience to be different than what it is (or what it was), and are able to embrace both the light and the shadow of life with equanimity, we come closer to experiencing our true Divine nature, the nondual Essence of Being that we are.