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Rabbi Robinson’s Sermon May 31, 2024

Bechukotai: The Gift of Mitzvot

Plaut p. 872

Source Sheet by Yair Robinson


We come to the end of the book of Leviticus, a chance for us to rise up and recite the words ‘chazak chazak v’nitchazek’–be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened. That’s the ritual we perform when we finish a book of Torah, a chance to honor God’s word and the congregation’s exploration of it. Having said that, those words–be strong and we will be strengthened–resonate differently today, this 237th day of October 7th, where the world continues to feel upside down, and not only for our own people. I think of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who said, “They offer healing offhand For the wounds of My people, Saying, “All is well, all is well,” When nothing is well.” (6:14). Nothing is well in this moment, and so when we rise to ask for strength, this is no mere ritual of celebration, but a heartfelt cry for us to strengthen one another, probably much as our ancient worthies would.


What is the source of strength? The Psalmist tells us Adonai, maker of heaven and earth, and she’s not wrong, but it’s not in the way that we’d expect. Our strength comes from the last words of this book of Torah: “These are the mitzvot that יהוה gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” I know, I know: at first blush, they’re not the most exciting words, exactly, summarizing all that we’ve read through the book of Leviticus. But if we look more carefully, we find deeper meaning after all. We are told that these are the mitzvot that God gave to us, to the Jewish people. Why? What purpose do they serve? To observe them, sure. Because of the covenant, of course. As ‘good deeds’, largely, sure. But they’re more than that. If we go back to Leviticus 19, we’re reminded that the mitzvot are all meant to be acts imitatio dei: in order to emulate God. To refresh our memory, God tells us that we shall be holy for Adonai is holy, and then tells us how to be holy, like God. The Mitzvot are given to us as a gift, an act of love, as our liturgy and tradition remind us over and over again; yes to affirm God’s name and presence in the world, but also to affirm the divinity in the world itself. They remind us that whenever we act, when we do so through the lens of the mitzvot, then are actions are elevated from the mundane or even profane to the sacred and cosmically significant. The acts we perform elevating one another, supporting those in need, those are acts of holiness, not just a nice thing to do. And more than that, if God is realized on some level through our actions, that becomes a reminder that God is present, if only in potential, anywhere, perhaps even and especially where God feels the most absent.


Truly God feels absent in the streets of Rafah and the dungeons beneath it, and in our own city streets filled with the broken and wounded and needy, and too often in our own hearts the hearts of our fellow Americans who see enemies where they once saw neighbors, unable to look past difference of any variety. We ache for a response to all of this pain. And it turns out, God gave us the tools, through the mitzvot, to alleviate that pain, and make God’s present in each others’ lives. So tonight let us reimagine the words of Torah as linked with the words we say when the book is completed: “These are the sacred obligations, the mitzvot, that God has given us, b’nai yisrael, to help us be strong and strengthen one another. Amen.




Leviticus 27:30-34

(30) All tithes from the land, whether seed from the ground or fruit from the tree, are יהוה’s; they are holy to יהוה. (31) If any party wishes to redeem any tithes, one-fifth must be added to them. (32) All tithes of the herd or flock—of all that passes under the shepherd’s staff, every tenth one—shall be holy to יהוה. (33) One must not look out for good as against bad, or make substitution for it. If one does make substitution for it, then it and its substitute shall both be holy: it cannot be redeemed.


(34) These are the commandments that יהוה gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.


ויקרא כ״ז:ל׳-ל״ד

(ל) וְכׇל־מַעְשַׂ֨ר הָאָ֜רֶץ מִזֶּ֤רַע הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ מִפְּרִ֣י הָעֵ֔ץ לַיהֹוָ֖ה ה֑וּא קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַֽיהֹוָֽה׃ (לא) וְאִם־גָּאֹ֥ל יִגְאַ֛ל אִ֖ישׁ מִמַּֽעַשְׂר֑וֹ חֲמִשִׁית֖וֹ יֹסֵ֥ף עָלָֽיו׃ (לב) וְכׇל־מַעְשַׂ֤ר בָּקָר֙ וָצֹ֔אן כֹּ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲבֹ֖ר תַּ֣חַת הַשָּׁ֑בֶט הָֽעֲשִׂירִ֕י יִֽהְיֶה־קֹּ֖דֶשׁ לַֽיהֹוָֽה׃ (לג) לֹ֧א יְבַקֵּ֛ר בֵּֽין־ט֥וֹב לָרַ֖ע וְלֹ֣א יְמִירֶ֑נּוּ וְאִם־הָמֵ֣ר יְמִירֶ֔נּוּ וְהָֽיָה־ה֧וּא וּתְמוּרָת֛וֹ יִֽהְיֶה־קֹּ֖דֶשׁ לֹ֥א יִגָּאֵֽל׃


(לד) אֵ֣לֶּה הַמִּצְוֺ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּהַ֖ר סִינָֽי׃