The second of this week’s double Torah portion, Behar/Behukotai, puts things quite simply: If you follow the rules of the covenant, then every aspect of your life will be blessed. In Leviticus 26 we read: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season … I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled … I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile, and multiply you … I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God and you shall be My people …”
If we do not obey the rules, we get the opposite. Chapter 26 continues: “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments … I will wreak misery upon you … I will set My face against you … You shall flee though none pursues … ”
The Torah continues to explain that the earth will not produce food, that wild beasts shall bereave the people of their children, God will send a sword to wreak havoc against us and if we retreat, a pestilence will overtake us. We can, however, change our course and atone, and then God will remember the covenant.
Simple, right? Be good and your life will be great. If not, you will be punished. However, if you start being good, then things will get better.
But is it true?
Sometimes. Sometimes life is predictable. Our actions have clear and logical consequences. That is what we tell our children. We teach them to be kind to others and, in return, others should be kind to them. We encourage them to work hard so they can reach their goals. It is comforting for us to believe that our behavior and our choices determine our own future. And sometimes, we do have control over our lives.
Yet, sometimes, life is not predictable. Sometimes we do everything right, and something still goes wrong. Sometimes we do everything wrong, but we still get rewarded. In those moments, it can feel as if everything that tradition has promised has been a lie, that our good deeds and intentions have gone unnoticed and that we have been abandoned.
That is essentially what Job’s three friends tell him when tragedy befalls him. Job does everything right. However, when the angel Satan suggests that Job obeys only because he has a good life, a loving family, health and enough wealth to sustain him beyond his immediate needs, God agrees to allow Satan to take it all away in order to see if he would curse God instead of obey. Job remains ever faithful. The friends criticize his belief, yet he maintains that he is but a man and cannot possibly understand God’s ways. The story ends happily, as good stories often do, when God rewards Job for his faithfulness. Job regains everything he lost, and then some.
In those times when everything seems to go wrong through no fault of our own, it is difficult to maintain the kind of faith that Job had. Yet, what would be the result of Job’s loss of faith? In addition to losing everything he had, he would have lost his hope that things would ever get better. Surely, that would have made his life all the more difficult.
It would be nice if life reflected the straightforward principle that we are rewarded or punished according to our actions. However, we know from experience that life is not always so predictable, and things happen that we cannot control. What we can control is whether we give up or whether we keep trying. The parashah may not be a description of reality, but instead, an expression of hope that if we stay on a path of goodness and integrity, things will get better, and thus, it urges us to keep trying.
That’s the simple lesson. Keep trying and have hope. Even when doing good seems to bring no reward, keep trying. Hope that things will be better. Believe that our actions will make them better. Our hope will keep us going and enable us to find a way to blessing and peace.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.