Behar/Bechukotai: Jewish Karma
The great Russian writer Vera Nazarian once said, “A boomerang returns back to the person who throws it”. This concept of “karma” is beautifully taught in our Torah reading this week, which is the double portion of Behar-Bechukotai (Lev. 25:1-27:34).
People often think that karma as an Eastern philosophy and/or don’t truly understand the concept. But our text this week explains clearly how all of our actions are judged by God, who makes sure that those actions are rewarded or punished in a celestial way. This reading is filled with examples of the good things that will happen to us if we faithfully follow and observe God’s commandments (Lev. 26:3), and conversely the many negative things that will happen if we don’t follow those instructions (Lev. 26:14).
These are not the promises and threats of a vengeful God, but the exact opposite: it is the loving guidance of a devoted “parent”. As parents we all want our children to be right and righteous individuals who make mature decisions. We know, and want them to learn that if they don’t get enough sleep, they will not function optimally in the morning at school. So we explain to them the rewards and consequences of sleep habits. We want them to develop physically, so we are clear about dietary needs. We don’t do this as “threats” (“If you don’t eat and sleep well, you won’t play well in your baseball game”), but rather as admonitions about potential pitfalls if they don’t listen. Our children receive rewards for correct behavior, and we only dole out punishments so that they learn the consequences of bad behavior and make the right choices….choices that will ultimately enhance their lives. In our text, God is being a truly loving parent and doing the same.
The Torah gives us guidelines in how to live so that can have greater harmony within ourselves and with others. These guidelines are critically important and the foundation of creating a healthy and balanced world. This week’s reading is merely an exposition of God to His children of the importance of these guidelines and how there are clear consequences of our actions. If we follow God’s instructions then there will be positive consequences, and if not (God forbid), the opposite will occur. These are not promises nor threats, but a simple teaching of how causes lead to results. “What goes around, comes around”.
Most of us can accept the truth of this teaching, especially when we relate it to good parenting skills. But there is also a challenge that comes with it.
Why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa? Why do some people who don’t have righteous behavior seem to succeed right now, and many righteous individuals who act in accordance with Torah seem to not be reaping rewards?
In order to answer this difficult question from a Jewish perspective, we again look to the model of good parenting. We guide our children because we understand how certain behaviors result in specific consequences: both good and challenging. The simple truth is that we have a greater understanding of the world than the child does. They don’t have the experience and wisdom that we do, having only experienced the world through a child’s microcosmic vision. When we teach them that a pattern of behavior will lead to success in college or business, they have no relationship to those things that (for them) are far in the future. They just want to do what gives them pleasure now, and don’t necessarily recognize the future ramifications in a world they know nothing about. They need to take on faith that there is more to the Universe than what they currently know; and to trust us in our guidance about how their actions will affect their future.
Similarly, we need to accept that God knows more than we do. We need to have faith that God has a greater understanding on a macrocosmic level. That while we may not immediately see the advantages of God’s guidance given in Torah, we choose to trust that guidance based on our faith that God knows better. A child may only be able to relate to the current circumstances of their life: school, playground, athletic teams, etc. and be unaware of the future realities of college, business, their own children, and so on. The child won’t see the benefits of the teachings good parents give in their immediate circumstances of the school and playground, but we as parents know that the good habits they develop as children will serve them for benefits in their upcoming world of business in the future…and we want them to accept that for their own long term benefit. In the same way, we need to accept that God understands what is ahead of us in the future better than we do. A child’s vision is small compared to a parent’s world view. And our perspective is tiny compared to God’s macrocosmic understanding of the Universe.
There are many Jewish concepts of the “olam ha’ba” (world to come), but all agree that the soul of a human being continues beyond this physical life. In the same way that a child cannot really see the benefits of the behavioral systems parents teach, we are unable to truly see the benefits of living according to God’s instructions. We ask our children to have faith that there is a distant benefit. We need to have faith in God that His instructions, although we may not see it in this world, have benefits that we cannot see.
There is a beautiful story of Rabbi Akiva and the prophet Elijah. The two were on a journey and walking through the world. The first night, they stayed at the home of a very poor couple. The couple, although poor and their only possession was their horse, insisted upon Elijah and Akiva staying in the one bed that they had in their cottage. Although they had little, they gave a Akiva and Elijah the best food that they did have. When the morning came, the couple’s only possession, their horse, had died.
The next day, they stayed at the home of a very wealthy man. Although the man was wealthy, he made them sleep in the barn, and gave them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah said to the wealthy man, “I noticed that have a break in the wall of the perimeter of your property. In gratitude for your hospitality, I will send some workers tomorrow to come replace it”.
“Where is God’s justice?!”, said Akiva. “The poor man who was so kind tonus had his one possession, his horse, killed. And you’re fixing the wealthy man’s wall! How is this just?”
Elijah replied, “Do not try to judge that which you do not understand. It had been pre ordained that the poor man’s wife was to have died that night. Because he was so kind and charitable, his horse was taken instead. As for the wealthy man, if he had repaired the wall himself, he would have found a pot of gold by the break in the wall. Because he was not charitable and kind, he will now not receive that benefit. God’s wisdom is greater than our own, and we must always have faith in the accuracy of God’s judgments.”
Just because we don’t see the hand of God’s justice now; like our children, we need to have faith that the justice is there.
Leonardo DaVinci taught, “Learn to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else”. We may not be able to see the connections, but this Torah portion reminds us of the outcome of our actions. All we need to do is surrender our perceived knowledge to the wisdom of our Divine parent through the Torah advice we are given.
What goes around, comes around. God is letting us know the results: for long term joy or sorrow. It is our choice, but this week’s portion reminds us that we have already been told the results of our actions in advance. What shall each of us choose?
“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live. You and your children.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
May we all choose wisely, surrender our will to God’s wisdom, and in so doing, reap the benefits and rewards promised in this world and the World to Come.
Rabbi Michael Barclay May 7, 2021 25th of Iyyar, 5781 40th day of the Omer