Behar-Bechukotai: Learning to Walk Again
We are on a long path now. Many felt that the lockdown and quarantine because of COVID-19 was going to be a quick disruption and then everything would get back to normal. We know now that is not true. While some states are reopening more quickly, others are taking a slower path. I’m not here to judge the speed at which each municipality or region or state attempts to tackle this epic crisis. What all these decisions have in common, whether slow or fast, this idea or that idea, is that they are all on the same, very long path out of the darkness and into the light.
A disciple once asked the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement: “Why is it that one who clings to God and knows he is close to the Divine, sometimes experiences a sense of disruption and remoteness?” The Baal Shem Tov explained: “When a mother sets out to teach her little son to walk, she stands in front of him and holds her two hands on either side of the boy, so that he cannot fall, and when the boy goes toward his mother, when he is in her arm’s reach, she moves her arms away just a little, so that the child stumbles and toddles as he moves into her bosom. She does this over and over, so that the child may learn to walk on his own.
We are on a long path now, and where it leads us is still unclear, but one thing we know for certain is that the future, at least for now, cannot look like the past. In these times of great global and radical uncertainty, stress and anxiety peak. We can’t sleep. We can’t focus. We take our stress out on each other. We feel we are teetering. But as the Baal Shem Tov teaches, it is in this moment when the guard rails come off, where we actually learn to walk and step into the world with God’s heart.
Indeed this is the last lesson of Leviticus. In the final portion, Behar- Bechukotai, God prepares us to walk on our own for the first time. Leviticus begins in the shadow of Sinai where God calls to Moses from inside the newly constructed Tabernacle to come inside. (Lev. 1:1). God draws us into a loving embrace of intimacy and to bring to God the heart. The Book of Leviticus closes now by letting us go and sending us forth into a world of our making. God removes, as it were, the parental hands holding us up and for the first time lets us all shuffle into the future.
Two paths, one future.
Which one will they choose? God is asking for each of us to decide, through our uncertainty and anxiety, through our stress and trauma, through our pain, on a path. The Torah is a blueprint for life, not a road map. The future is not predestined. God can give us wisdom, set up our moral foundations, orient us towards the future, and even give us advice on where to go, but the choice is our responsibility. The first lesson of Leviticus is that God loves and calls each of us into relationship. The last lesson of Leviticus is that God lets go. And in that release and separation, we teeter and toddle, we shamble and stumble, we feel fear and uncertainty, but holiness and redemption are right there in front of us; all we need to do is to keep moving forward.
Stay home, stay safe, stay healthy, and most importantly, stay loving.