Thursday, 15 May 2014

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

Bechukkotai – Substitutions

Some American expressions just don’t work in Britain. Jackie and I once nearly had a fight until we realised that describing someone as ‘full of beans’ meant ‘full of joy and energy’ in England, and ‘telling lies’ in the States. Another time we were doing a walking tour of the Jewish quarter of Prague with a retired American rabbi who kept using the expression, ‘if you’re given lemons, make lemonade.’ I had to translate for the English speakers: In the States, lemonade doesn’t normally come out of a bottle – you make it yourself, at home, with lemons, water and sugar. (What you Brits call lemonade is usually lemon soda/pop, or just Seven-Up or Sprite.) The expression clearly means: when bad things happen, take them as an opportunity to make something good.

I remembered this saying when I came across a comment by R. Yisrael Taub of Modzitz (1849-1921) on the closing verses of Bechukkotai. R. Yisrael came from a long line of Hasidic rabbis, but became the founder of his own dynasty which continues down to the present. Many of his teachings are assembled in a book called Divrei Yisrael, Israel’s Words (Tel Aviv, 1984). (The following is based on his exposition of Leviticus 27:33 in pt. 3, p. 160.)

The Modzitzer’s comment comes on the closing verses of the sidra, which also happen to be the closing verses of Leviticus. Chapter 27 of this book feels like an after-thought to the rest of the book. It concerns the rather complex rules for dedicating objects, people and land to God, i.e. to the Temple. In verses 30-32 we are reminded of the laws for tithing cattle and flocks. The animals are to pass under the staff, and every tenth beast is to be given as a tithe, regardless of how good or bad the animal might be. Herdsmen trying to restrict their losses by substituting a sickly animal for a healthy one, or for that matter, any pious individuals wishing to offer a healthier animal than the one randomly chosen, are warned against this. Should they attempt to substitute another animal for the tenth one, then ‘both it and its substitute’ shall be holy, according to verse 33; in other words, both animals should now go off to the Temple!

R. Yisrael noticed that verse 33 contains the word v’hayah, ‘and it will be’. Here is the verse in full:

He [the owner] must not look out for good or for bad, or make substitution for it. If he makes substitution for it, then it will be (v’hayah) that it and its substitute shall be holy; it cannot be redeemed.

There is a principle of the midrash that every use of v’hayah indicates joy, and R. Yisrael makes use of this notion. He therefore posits that, in addition to its plain meaning, the verse is talking about joy and its opposite, pain and unhappiness. His discussion is a bit complex to reproduce here, but it can be summarised as follows.

Whenever something happens to us, whether good or bad, the crucial thing is our attitude. When we try to see everything from the aspect of loving kindness, then we can learn to say, in the words of the Talmud, ‘Whatever the All-Merciful does is for the best’ (Berachot 60b). Everything that happens, even those things that seem to be bad, may turn out to contain hidden opportunities that are as yet invisible to us. We have to see those apparently bad things from the perspective of loving kindness, and, he concludes ‘just as you assess for yourself that [what has happened] is loving kindness and goodness, so it will truly be goodness and kindness.’ In other words, our attitude almost determines the actual nature of what has happened.

This isn’t just wishful thinking. R. Yisrael was not unaware of trouble, pain, anxiety and death. But he was really on to something. For example, there is now clear research that indicates that patients with an optimistic outlook have a better rate of recovery from cancer and other diseases. And I’m sure we can all think of people who overcame seemingly impossible odds to achieve great things – Nelson Mandela, to name but one and many Holocaust survivors, too. Compared to them, the issues most of us face in our lives are fairly trivial. Surely, we can view our troubles from the perspective of loving kindness; then perhaps we will realise our potential to overcome our obstacles.

R. Yisrael of Modzitz was, and is, probably more famous for his melodies than for his derashot. His most famous song is called Ezkerah, based on Psalm 42:5 (‘I will remember these and pour out my soul’).  He is said to have composed it while having major surgery without an anaesthetic! Clearly this was a man who knew how to ‘make lemonade.’

(Incidentally, he survived the operation and lived another eight years.)

Rabbi Larry Tabick
Ordained at LBC 1976

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.