I begin with a favorite story, I learned from R’ Ed Feinstein’s Capture the Moon
Story of Heaven and Hell
Meir was such a noble man in life, always a kind word and act. After a long illness, He was not ery surprised one day to wake up and find that he had died! Where are we” Asked Meir to the malach that was near “You were such a mentsh, I was instructed to ask you where you’d like to go for the afterlife” said the malach. “Can I see first” asked Meir. “Very well” So they got into an elevator and descended for what seemed a very long time. Suddenly the elevator filled with the aromas of delicious foods. The door opened to reveal banquet tables filled with steaming posts of stews and soups, piled high with steaming hot platters of deliciousness. Yet the people there were gaunt, emaciated , sick and wailing a most terrible sound rose from some, whimpers from others.
It seems that very long-handled spoons were the only way to access the food, which would frustratingly spill as the people tried to feed themselves. Such hunger, the frustration of the falling morsels.
This is hell, explained the malach.
Oh, said Meir!
May I see the other place?
And so the elevator rose higher and higher until once again the aroma of delicious food began to seep into the car.
The door opened once again to a scene of banquet tables set the very same way, Once again the only tools were extremely long handled spoons. But this time the people were smiling, singing, laughing, and a look of great health glowed from them.
Can you figure out what made the difference?
Yes, in this place they fed one another!
This is heaven, explained the malach.
I believe we make earth a heaven and hell during our lives
This wonderful tale makes it easy to understand how acts of chesed help create a heaven here on earth, and lack of them create hell
Bechukotai is a parashah of blessings and curses: Blessings if we follow G!d’s ways, curses if we ignore the ways of Mitzvah, not of chesed. So which is it, mitzvah or chesed. And what’s the difference?
There’s a TV show my kids introduced me to called “The Good Place” (spoiler alert next these 2 paragraphs) Eleanor wakes up in the afterlife in a place masquerading as heaven, but it’s a personally designed hell. There are four mortals in this particular hell, which they turn into heaven by helping one another time after time, and even falling in love, It’s a modern version of the fable.
But at the end of last season it turns out that no souls have gone to the real Good place for hundreds of years due to the unintended consequences of the technology and the way we live our lives – each morsel of food travels 1500 miles to reach our mouths, and uses fossil fuels to get there. There’s industrial farming that’s harmed the earth too. I don’t know how it’ll continue!
Perhaps the difference between mitzvah and chesed is to be found here: Mitzvah includes our relationship with the earth as well as other human beings.
One of the verses read today : chapter 27
In the jubilee year the land shall revert to him from whom it was bought,
We hear again and again of the Yovel, Jubilee
In last week’s parashah, Behar,(chapter 25) we hear of the Yovel, Jubilee, Keratem droor b’artzchem, proclaim liberty throughout the land for all the inhabitants, not only for humans. On Shabbat, Shmitah and Jubilee, the earth itself shall be heard, and honored and the farm animals and the wild animals too. Though we read of it last week, the Yovel pops up again and again in this week’s parashah. I think it is crucially connected to the blessings and curses.
As we have Shabbat here today, the land is also to have a Shabbat, a shmitah and a yovel.
But we are not listening to, or honoring the land or its creatures.
Instead, we are taking it all, every day, every year. Everything we do from the moment we wake up has consequences for the earth. If we let continue the ways we have started, we will create a hell, we are creating a hell on earth. A world of injustice with chasms growing wider between haves and have nots. Further a world of global warming, of storms and fires and droughts and rising seas.
We are running out of time. There are fewer and fewer wildernesses, and wild creatures. Our home that gives us food and water and air is burning as we burn fossil fuels, and the curses of Behukotai are becoming very real. There are solutions, but not the will, or in this country even the awareness to act. According to R’ Arthur Waskow, these are consequences predicted in Torah, the land taking its rest by harsh curse
From R’ Arthur Waskow’s Shema
If you hush’sh and then listen,
yes hush’sh and then listen
to the teachings of YHWH/ Yahh,
the One Breath of Life,
that the world is One,
all its parts intertwined,
then the rains will fall
Time by time,…
The rivers will run,
the heavens will smile,
the good earth will fruitfully feed you.
But if you turn away,
chop the world into parts
and choose parts to worship —
gods of race or of nation,
gods of wealth and of power,
gods of greed and addiction;
If you Do and you Make,
and Produce without pausing;
If you Do without Being —
Then the rain will not fall,
or will turn to sharp acid;
The rivers won’t run,
or flood homes and cities;
The heavens themselves
will take arms against you:
the ozone will fail you,
the oil that you burn
will scorch your whole planet
and from the good earth
that the Breath of Life gives you,
you will vanish;
But can Mitzvah then and chesed that can make a Heaven on Earth? Yes these, but with one more important, simple, beautiful way: it’s through the children, making the world better for them, that we can make this world a Heaven. Judaism’s focus is on the children after all. The very worst curse in the parashah is that we will consume our own children! Moses says the reason for the miracles of Pesach are so that you can tell your children on that day…
And it turns out, the children are doing their part! There is a wonderful lesson in a young teen in Sweden by the name of Greta Thunberg, here on the TED stage, who was so upset when she learned about climate change that she, at first, stopped talking, or going to school. She then decided to launch a lone protest as action. This protest has sparked tens of thousands of children to raise their voices in school strikes around the world
And what can we do about it individually?
All we can do is… all we can do. That is our worth as a human being
In today’s parashah we learn that there is a shekel value to each life, of a man or woman!
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to YHVH the equivalent for a human being,
Woah, that caught my eye – what could be the equivalent to a human being?
Isn’t each soul worth the whole world?
In Kaballah and Ecology, Rabbi David.M Seidenberg there is a rich discussion of human value due to having the tzelem Elohim – the image of God within us.
“For my sake the world was created” from Bavli, a comment about the G-d fearing individual “R’Shimon ben Azai says… The whole entire world was not created except to join to this one/ l’tzavot l’zeh”
Siedenberg interprets: The world was created to become connected with the righteous ones of humanity. Connection, more than hierarchy, characterizes humanity’s unique place in relationship to the rest of Creation…”
And according to a Hasidic teaching Simchah Bunam, one must always have two slips of paper, one in each pocket “The world was created for my sake” in one pocket, and “I am dust and ashes” in the other pocket, for balance
R’ Nachman of Breslov explained..”since the world was only created for my sake, I need to see and look into repairing the world, tiqun olam, at every moment to fill the needs of the world.
And humans are not the only creatures with value or tzelem and our value lies in connection
How do you measure the worth of a human being?
I found more insight from the song “Heaven’s Eyes” from the animate movie A Prince in Egypt
A single thread in a tapestry
Through its color brightly shines
Can never see its purpose
In the pattern of the grand design
And the stone that sits on the very top, Of the mountain’s mighty face
Does it think it’s more important
Than the stones that form the base?
So how can you see what your life is worth
Or where your value lies?
You can never see through the eyes of man
You must look at your life
Look at your life through heaven’s eyes
Lai le lai lai lee lai lai
And how do you measure the worth of a man, in wealth or strength or size, By how much he’s gained or how much he gave?
The answer will come, If you look at yourself through heaven’s eyes.
When I look at my life through heaven’s eyes I know my value lies in connection and in doing what I can to make the world better for the children. I pray that with God’s help I can. I pray, use me! For Chesed, Mitzvah, with an eye toward the children.