B’har/B’hukkotai: In an Unjust World

By Ilana Grinblat

Published May 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The phone rang, and I could hear the tears in my friend’s voice. She explained that she had complications during pregnancy and was hospitalized for an extended period. Her twins were delivered prematurely and would need to stay in the NICU indefinitely. She worried about her babies’ development both short and long-term. “Why are other people having healthy babies but not me?” she asked. “I’ve lost my faith in God.”

Her words were painfully familiar to me. I’ve had variations of this conversation countless times. As a rabbi, people turn to me when facing cancer or dire financial straights or the death of a family member, and tell me how the crisis has crushed their faith in God. Their struggle is doubled. They not only have lost their health or loved one, but they’ve lost God, precisely when they need God most.

In reflecting on these conversations, I wonder: where do we get the idea that if we’re good then God will reward us with health and happiness? This theology that we absorb is somehow at odds with the world in which we live. One need only read the paper to know that good people suffer every day. Perhaps if only we weren’t taught this fallacy, then we could save the excruciation of unlearning this idea when tragedy strikes.

This week’s Torah portion can contribute to this problem. The double portion of B’har (on the Mountain) and B’hukkotai (In My Laws) concludes the book of Vaykira (Leviticus) with passages that resonate with its main themes. B’hukkotai begins by offering blessings for following God’s laws and curses for disobeying. The text recounts God’s promise: “If you walk in my laws and keep my commandments, I will give rain in their seasons, and the earth will yield its produce …” The blessings include agricultural bounty, security and peace — which sound great. Conversely, God explains that “if you reject My laws” then “I will wreak misery upon you …” The curses stipulated in the next 27 verses aren’t pretty!

This type of passage seems to be a source for causing such anguish. However, on careful review, we discover that God’s words are entirely addressed in the plural (which is clear in the Hebrew but not in the English translation). The text does not promise reward and punishment for individuals but only for the community.

The concept of collective consequences for behavior is a built-in feature of the world in which we live. On a global level, if we collectively care for the environment then we collectively benefit from living in a cleaner world. Conversely, if we pollute the air and water, then we suffer the devastating health consequences of living in such a world. On a societal level, if we collectively create a society that values kindness, then we are rewarded with the joy of living in a caring community, whereas if our society glorifies violence then we suffer more violence.

Violence or pollution surely affect some people more than others, and the distribution of suffering isn’t fair. The rabbis of the Talmud recount that Moses asked God “Why are there righteous who suffer and wicked who prosper?” This question resounds through the ages.

I told my friend to share her frustrations with God. Even anger can be a form of prayer. Most of all, I told her that I love her and am here for her. In this unjust world, only with time and love can faith be found again.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.