Sermon: Success and Failure (Bechukkotai)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 19 May 2015

How does the Bible begin?   I suspect that pretty much all of us know the first words of the Bible “Bereshit Bara Elohim et ha shamayim v’et ha’aretz” – in the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. But how many of us know the last words of the Bible? Just what they are depends on whether you go for the order of the Hebrew Bible preserved in the Christian Bible (where the Bible ends with Malachi the last prophet and his words about the end of the world and Elijah’s return), or whether you go with the order given in every Jewish bible published since the early centuries of the common era – where the last book of the Bible is the Book of Chronicles. What are the Bible’s not particularly famous last words?

They concern the exile of the Jews to Babylonia from Judah and how their seventy years in exile “fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil seventy years.” And finally how Cyrus the king of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their land to rebuild the Temple.

Our Torah portion last Shabbat set out the way in which the economy of Israel is to be built. There is to be hard work to gain the best fruits of the land but every seven years it is to be left fallow to recover its strength as agricultural land – a Sabbath for the land. On this Shabbat, in the chapter just before the one which Beth and James read for us today, we hear the curses that will befall us if we don’t! Every seven times seven years the land itself is, through the Jubilee, to return to its original tribal holders so that land accumulations in the hands of a few families do not happen as we heard in James’s section of the portion.

Earlier in the Book of Leviticus which we end today it was stressed that every seven days there is to be a day of human and animal rest where nothing new is created, the Shabbat, in the portion Emor, and that of every field we own and crop that we grow a portion is to be set aside for the poor and the stranger to glean and feed themselves for free, in the portion Kedoshim.

The last words of the Bible say that because we did not observe these laws – we kept hold of everything for ourselves – we were driven out of the land and kept out for seventy years so that it could make up for the time of our greed. This was, in our Prophet’s understanding, the reason for the exile to Babylonia and the destruction of the First Temple – a corrupt, disunited, selfish society could not resist a conquering invader.

Our portion today tells us that observing the laws of Leviticus and their spirit in our time brings blessings – very special blessings – not only of prosperity but of being satisfied with that prosperity and living in safety and security to enjoy it and living in a way which is the opposite of being a slave – truly free. Why? Because as Rabbi Yehoshua Engleman says “if you hold onto something too tight the Bible says that you will lose it” – just as the Jews lost their nation of Judah.

The Bible, in its last words tells us clearly what failure for a society would be.

Failure is a society where selfish interests dominate – where everyone grabs for themselves and is unable to let anything go for the good of others. Success in the bible is a society where people build their own prosperity but in the context of giving themselves and those around them as well the dignity of rest, where busyness is not constant but rather there are times and spaces to refresh ourselves.

Success is a society where the poor, the dispossessed and the stranger (meaning for us the refugee and the recent arrival) and those deeply disadvantaged in the world can count on us with any level of prosperity to see that what we have is God’s gift to us – earned with our God given talents or through what we have been able to build on previous generations. Thus we do not fully own our prosperity. Some of it must be shared with those whose lives have not been as favoured as ours.   Success is a society where the desperate boat people setting out across the Mediterranean or Andaman sea are treated with respect, consideration and dignity, where the response to the devastation in Nepal is for the rich world to join together to help.   This care and consideration is built into the fabric of a successful, blessed society.

Success is a society where the country in which we live is cared for – the modern day equivalent of shmittah – the seven year lying fallow of the land. The Bible is clear we can use its produce – but not without any limitation, not without ensuring that what is beautiful about it remains. Success is a society where in every succeeding generation there is enough opportunity to build prosperity – that is the message of the Jubilee – God is a sharing owner of the world not like Pharaoh of Egypt who is an accumulating owner – trying to grab everything for himself. We in the image of God should also ensure that our society enables all to share in prosperity in the long term.

In Pirke Avot (5:10) there is a passage which speaks of four kinds of people with respect to how they treat what they have gained. The person who says what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours creates an unforgiving and uncaring society like that of Sodom in the book of Genesis, a society destroyed by its own greed.

A person who says what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine creates a society that is unrealistic – the word used in the Hebrew means un-educated. Giving everything away is not the ideal but just make you into a person who needs the support of others.

The person who says what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine is wicked – accumulating all to themselves.

But the person who says what is mine is yours too and what is yours is yours is understanding the true message of his religion (in Hebrew the word is Hasid) because in this society no-one becomes destitute. We both share and respect that each person, as in the highest of Maimonides degrees of Tzedakah which we heard at the beginning of the service has to be enabled to look after themselves.

A week into a new government we are aiming to shape of the future of our country. We should be looking out for generosity of spirit, a care for all people, preservation of the land and a continued sharing of prosperity. Only in this way can we enjoy the blessings which the Torah speaks of – not behind walls living in fear of the dispossessed as has happened in a number of countries, notably in Brazil, Colombia and parts of South Africa, but in a society of opportunity for all to reach their potential so that we can be satisfied with what we have and live in security with each other.

The last words of the bible say fail to do this and expect trouble in the future. Grab everything you can and we all end up the losers. The first words of the bible say everything is possible in accord with the boundless potential of the newly created universe.