Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34; Parashat HaShavua for Shabbat, June 1, 2024

According to our tradition, the Jewish people have been in a relationship with God since God first spoke to Abraham, then liberated us from Egyptian slavery and spoke to us at Mount Sinai. How do we continue to cultivate this relationship? This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, completes the third book of the Torah, Leviticus or Viyakra, in Hebrew. Vayikra, laid out in minute detail all the laws of the sacrificial service, which was how the Jewish People mediated their relationship with God for at least 1,500 years. 

But in 70 C.E. the Romans destroyed the Temple and we were prohibited from performing sacrifice, so what is the relevance of these archaic laws of sacrifice, why do we continue to study them? Commenting on the first verse of this week’ parsha, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments.” (Leviticus 27:3) Sforno (15th C Italy) wrote,
“It means that they cannot just be performed by rote but must be performed consciously as such… you will study these laws in order to understand their purpose and in order to give meaning to your performance of these laws” In other words, now that we can no longer sacrifice, we cultivate our relationship with God through the fulfillment of mitzvot and learning Torah to understand the meaning of these mitzvot. 

And there is still more, like this story, from Avot de Rabbi Natan, “Once, Rabban [our rabbi] Yohanan ben Zakkai, left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. And he saw the Holy Temple destroyed. [Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, for this is destroyed –] the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven! [Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness, as it says (Psalms 89:3), “For I desire kindness, not a well-being offering.” 

As our sages say, the world exists because of three things, Torah (study), avodah, (worship) and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) and this is how we can build and preserve our relationship with God today.