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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Shabbat B'chukkotai 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Miram's sermon here or read below.



On weeks like this I don’t feel I have a choice. I have an obligation to speak out against the Torah portion. The theology is not just flawed, it is harmful to people. 

When you feel you have been unjustly on the receiving end of God’s harsh punishment it is horrifically painful and destructive. The text leaves people asking – “why me?” What have I done wrong? The synagogue should be a place to find solace and respite from life’s troubles not to be chastised from the bimah and told your personal pain is the result of divine punishment, and yes, you have been singled out for such personal horror. 

For years I stood on the bimah in our old building and every time I turned to face the ark, tried to lose myself in personal prayer, I was tormented by the questions of theology raised by this week’s portion and repeated in many, many other parshiot. 

  וּפָנִיתִי אֲלֵיכֶם--וְהִפְרֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם, וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם; וַהֲקִימֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, אִתְּכֶם.       9

And I will look with favour on you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you; and will establish My covenant with you.

And all I have to do 

ג  אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי, תֵּלֵכוּ; וְאֶת-מִצְוֺתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם.   3

(If you) follow My laws, and faithfully keep My commandments;

But it’s just not that easy, as those of us who have tried to be fruitful and multiply yet failed can attest. 

Never knowing who is in the synagogue and what they are experiencing right now leaves me aware we can’t gloss over it; we cannot ignore it when such words could cause such pain and hurt.  
So how come we keep reading it, not knowing who we sit next to? What of these long lists of rewards people feel directly punished by at this time? Which of the list of curses feel like they are being experienced each day? Does it make us better people? More observant? No, it makes us feel rejected, ignored and tormented. 

For years as I stood poised on the bimah leading this community and desperately praying that my personal prayers would be answered, I stood looking into the letters which then hung above the ark and now sit tucked away only to be seen when the ark is opened and to those up close (but feel free to approach the bimah after kiddush if you want a closer look at the lettering). 

Eitz hayyim he - it’s a tree of life. 

All I ever saw was that word hayyim - life and the middle letters, two little yuds representing God’s name. Is God really in the middle, at the heart of creating new life? Do I really need to win God’s favour in order to be rewarded with the ability to be fruitful and multiply, to bring children into the world? Was I once worthy but subsequently I needed punishment or was my reward proportionate to my worth?

What torment this parasha induces: for those that can’t feed their family, those not blessed with peace,  don’t punish me, there are many far more worthy of God’s wrath. 

Rather than hearing God’s ability to strike a deal or God’s fury in this text we should hear the plight of every generation echoing through these verses. In every generation whether we are talking 25 years ago, 100, 1000 years ago or even back to our ancestors in the wilderness, the tormented cries of “why me?” were part of life. The cause for our desperation and seeking answers remains the same in every generation. A need to feed our families and provide for them. A need to feel safe. A need to see ourselves reflected in the next generation and know that the cycle of life will continue after us. 

This torah portion should be heard not as an explanation for why we look around and wonder why some people have been dealt a considerably better hand than us but rather as a reminder that however much the world changes, our basic needs have never and will never change. We face the same very real pain, anxiety, distress, and torment in every generation. This was the language our ancestors found to make sense of life, to give answers, reasons and control in circumstances which felt so beyond their control. We know, as they knew what you are going through. We may put on a shiny, happy in-control exterior but we are all challenged by the turmoil of our own situation.  This portion teaches us one thing. You can cope alone, or you can do it with the support of community. You can ask “why me?” and step away or you can say I need to get through this and step inside. 

Is God at the heart, in the middle of life? Most definitely. But not to reward and punish in this way but to inspire, comfort and enable resilience, it is God who can help us find acceptance or who supports us to find the strength to keep striving to change one’s situation.  

Within this text we hear the desperate echoing cries throughout the generations. They are no less present today, but they have become muffled by the glossy sheen we insist on putting onto the images of our lives before putting them into the public domain. The stifled cries feeling like they are the only ones. Stepping into community with that anguish should remind us that we are far from alone and can share our cries not just with others sitting in this room, if we could be honest enough with each other but also with people of every generation which has gone before us.  

The Talmud in Taanit 2a claims that in God’s own hands retain three keys: “the Key of Rain, the Key of Reproduction and the Key of Resurrection.”  I would suggest that the keys do not bring the rain at the right times, the healthy pregnancy or open the door to the world to come but that through God, religion and community we unlock the vulnerability that those themes induce throughout the ages and unleash in us a place to sit with uncertainty. 

God did not cause my infertility nor is God causing yours.  God is not bringing droughts in Africa or flooding in Asia. God has not invaded Ukraine nor is at war in Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Yet if we look, we can find God in the wisdom of the doctors, in the innovations and research and commitments to overcome climate change and in the humanitarian aid supplied to those lives ravaged by war. 

I urge you not to fall into the easy answers of reward and punishment as it is insufficient and causes such individual harm and feelings of self-loathing and guilt. Not to reject religion for the answers of our ancestors to the same tormenting questions but to find the yuds of God’s name hiding at the heart of hayyim, life - to accompany us on life’s journey as it is, even if it’s not always as we hoped it could or should be. For the path trodden with support and companionship is the one that enables us to keep travelling on our path through life however hard it feels at times.

Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782