Many Reform siddur editors have been bothered by the biblical language of retribution as they appear in our Torah portion Bechukotai and in various parts of Deuteronomy. The same holds true for many congregants. On the Shabbatot when these portions are scheduled to be read, often the baal korei (Torah reader) will chant them quickly at a whisper so the congregation can avoid prolonged contact with them. Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger (z”l), wrote, “The public reading of these threatening passages caused great uneasiness to former generations. … people avoided the privilege of being called up [to say a blessing] on the Sabbaths when the curses were ready from Leviticus and Deuteronomy.”
Rabbis have long struggled to understand the concept of reward and punishment in our sacred texts. In discussing the Sh’ma (see page 67 in our Siddur Mishkan Tefilah), Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff writes, “… we cannot fathom God’s justice: whether we are talking about individuals or communities, it is simply not true that the righteous always prosper and the wicked suffer …” But he provides useful guidance to motivate our performance of the mitzvot, “I also believe that ‘The reward of performing a commandment is [the propensity and opportunity to perform another] commandment, and the result of doing a wicked thing is [the propensity and opportunity to do another] wicked thing (M. Avot 4:2). That is, we should do the right thing because it is the right thing and not out of hope for reward . . . ”
Offering a silver lining, this section of our parashah ends on a comforting note, “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them . . . I will remember in their favour the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 26:44-45). Despite the harshness of the earlier text, this ending holds out hope for redemption.
(Source: Audrey Merwin )