Bechukotai: Lie down without fear

One of my favorite quotes comes from this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai.  It’s from Leviticus 26:6:  “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.”

I especially like the first phrase, that one can lie down and not be afraid.  It doesn’t take much to imagine around the world, all the people, especially  children, who are going to bed legitimately afraid of things that can go boom in the night.

Now, in the way of all things Torah, it seems that the text is saying the same thing three times: I’ll bring you peace.   But in Torah-nalysis, what seems like repetition is really a layered, connected idea.    We can look at each of the three phrases separately.

I will grant peace in the land and you shall lie down untroubled– There’s a 13th c Spanish rabbi named Nahmanides (aka Ramban).  He says this phrase means that there will be peace among the people, that community will stop fighting with each other. Nice. That would be really something, right?   Next phrase.

I will rid the land of vicious beasts – our friend Ramban quotes one of his friends who says that it’s not just there won’t be any wild animals around, but that it would be just like the Garden, before animals ate any people. Also nice, headed back to Eden.  And now the last phrase.

No sword shall cross your land – for this one, we go to Rashi, the little ol’ winemaker of 11thc France,  who said that this means more than just no war; rather, the promise is that no neighboring army would pass through your land on the way to another army.

Each of these phrases sounds terrific on its own, but it’s Rashi that brings us back to the first phrase, putting it all in perspective.  The first phrase, about being able to lie down without fear, is the key to it all.   Peace, he says, is as valuable as everything else put together.  Neither the second or third phrase, what is in effect, the totality of peace, is possible unless we stop fighting amongst ourselves.  The fear isn’t about what can happen from the outside – the vicious beasts and swords.  It’s the peace from within.  The peace that is so strong within the community that it can withstand outside threats.

There is a midrash, a story in Jewish tradition about the destruction of the Second Temple thousands of years ago, that says it was hatred among the people (sinat chinam) that really caused the destruction, which resulted in the breakup of the entire community.  When we think about war and peace, it’s easy for us to think about Israel first. There, we’ve been told over and over, that Israel is so threatened by the beasts and swords from the outside, that it can’t possibly have the energy to “waste” on creating peace from within.  That’s the party line that’s been with us for years, but it isn’t enough anymore.   Rashi knew it – the peace from within provides the communal strength needed to withstand the scary things outside.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t worthy disagreements; Rashi, Ramban, and all the rest of the Sages disagreed about almost everything, but the great ones never disparaged each other’s faith, commitment, or identity.  The core of Rabbinic disagreements is respect.

And it’s not just Israel.  The American Jewish community is pretty fractured  too.  We have our own beasts and swords, and we focus on them noisily:  intermarriage, unaffiliation, empty synagogues, and on and on.  Those are the evidence of, if not baseless hatred, then at the very least, baseless distrust.    When differences give me permission to dismiss someone else’s Jewish identity because they don’t “do” Jewish like I do, it weakens the entire community,  and then there’s no room for the kind of peace that lets us lie down without fear.  The thing that gives me the most hope for the future is being able to lie down without fear of the different, and the new.  We can handle the rest.

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