The Berlin Holocaust memorial (Photo/Maharat Victoria Sutton)
The Berlin Holocaust memorial (Photo/Maharat Victoria Sutton)

How can we ensure blessings in a world filled with curses?


The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Bechukotai

Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Jeremiah 16:19 –17:14


Earlier this month, I joined a group of West Coast rabbis and museum directors on a trip to Germany. The trip, organized by the country’s foreign office, focused on Jewish life in Germany. Never have the biblical blessings and curses, curses and blessings, felt so palpable and visceral.

In Berlin, the structure of the buildings and the streets themselves tell a still-unfolding narrative, as past and present are superimposed, sometimes quite clumsily and other times strikingly: a narrative of blessing, curse, blessing, curse, blessing.

The jutting columns that once supported the grand sanctuary of Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue loom naked in what is now the back courtyard. Curse.

The relic tells only part of the story. Inside, in a more modest sanctuary, a German-born- and-raised female rabbi has been growing a vibrant Jewish community and a school over the last decade, just one example of the flourishing of Jewish life in Berlin in recent years. Blessing.

The Holocaust memorial installed in the last two decades consists of hundreds of concrete stelae (stone slabs) rooted like a graveyard in the middle of the city. If you step into the memorial, follow its somber calling out, the city disappears — even the noise of the city — and one becomes wholly swallowed up in the play of shadows on the rows of stelae that extend in every direction. Curse.

One cannot walk the streets without coming upon stolpersteine (stumbling stones), golden memorial stones for victims of Nazi persecution, laid in the pavement at the site of the victim’s last voluntarily chosen residence. This culture of remembrance and education around the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis is touted as inoculation against future curses of hate and fascism. The deep commitment and responsibility felt by all the officials and educators we met, in the face of the dark history of the last century’s curses, was clear and present.

“Im bechukotai telechu,” says this week’s Torah portion. “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments” (Leviticus 26:3), then blessing will surround you, and the curses cannot touch you.

To create a society whose members are protected from the curses, there must be chukot — there must be ethical rules of engagement, social constructs, taboos. What are the institutional structures, pedagogical methods, rules for social engagement and discourse, legislative and judicial measures that will ensure blessing and preclude the curses that plague us?

Can we as a society effectively educate and legislate away the pernicious curse of baseless hatred? Or at the very least, can we effectively educate and promote chukot that will safeguard groups targeted for hate and violence based on their identity?

There is an additional piece.

In this parashah, the blessings and curses are directed at the collective, at society as a whole. The haftarah from Jeremiah, which mirrors the blessings and curses, addresses the individual. Each and every individual within the society is responsible for pursuing truth and eschewing evil. One cannot rely on viewing oneself as a passive part of the collective, a person who bears no responsibility for the curses (but perhaps seeks to reap the blessings of the collective).

Yet the question still remains: What will ensure success and blessing? What will mitigate the curses?

Although there has been much focus on this question in Germany, which has a commitment to Holocaust education and has enacted legislation around anti-Semitism, in recent years, right-wing populism is on the rise in some regions of Germany with an upswing in anti-Semitic acts.

Even in the United States — the golden land of hope and freedom — the curse of anti-Semitism and hate crimes against other targeted groups have darkened the landscape. Amid so much blessing, this curse gnaws away at our peace of mind, as one startled by the sound of a driven leaf (Leviticus 26:36).

As a society, we do not yet have in place the chukot, the social structures, that the parashah thrusts on our collective shoulders. And as individuals, we might not yet have answers to the challenges that the prophet Jeremiah poses to each one of us. But we are not free from the responsibility those questions raise: the difficult conversations, soul searching and the yearning to immerse ourselves in the living waters of hope and trust.

I don’t know if healing is possible. Yet our haftarah ends the cycle with the blessings: “God is the hope of Israel … Heal me, God, that I may be healed; save me that I may be saved” (Jeremiah 17:13-14).

Maharat Victoria Sutton
Maharat Victoria Sutton

Maharat Victoria Sutton is the director of education and community engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.