Walking the Walk: Becoming a Through and Through Jew
by Miri Korbman
Parshas Bichukosai is a study in contrasts. First, God promises that if we will “walk in His statues,” (VaYikra 26:3) He will shower the Jewish people with abundant blessings when they enter the land of Israel. He continues, however, to warn the Jewish people that if we should go against His Mitzvos, He will punish us severely. At first glance, this appears to be a fair and reasonable deal enacted by Hashem to encourage us to keep His Mitzvos: do what I say, and you will be rewarded; fail to do so, and you will be punished.
Then, however, God takes things a step further. In addition to His warnings against disregarding His word and rejecting His laws, Hashem says, “v’im telchu imi keri… v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri,” and if you treat me with “keri,” then I, too, will behave in that same way toward you – and will heap additional sufferings, punishments, and casualties upon you (26:21, 26:24). What is this “keri” against which we must be additionally warned? Rashi translates this word as meaning “arai,” casually, like from the word “mikreh,” which means happenstance.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains that according to Rashi, these Psukim are a warning not against disregarding the Mitzvos, but against behaving casually toward the Mitzvos, by adhering to some and forsaking others. Rav Wolbe explains that to approach Judaism in a casual manner is to embody its laws and teachings when convenient and to disregard or alter them when adhering to a Jewish identity is less convenient.
After so many detailed Psukim outlining the terrible fate that awaits the Jewish people if we disobey God’s Mitzvos, surely anyone following along is already trembling with fear, and is certainly taking God seriously. Why must the Tochacha further include such a warning against treating the Mitzvos and our Avodas Hashem casually?
The need for belonging and the search for identity is a central challenge of human existence. From a young age, we long to connect, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and we struggle to discover exactly who we are. Erik Erikson famously outlined human development as a series of challenges faced at each stage. Adolescence - the time when we begin to separate from the wonder and dependence of childhood and strike out on our own - is categorized as the battle between identity and role confusion. It is the time that we begin to grapple with figuring out who we truly are. Adolescents typically try on different identities, floating in and out of different groups of friends and rapidly exchanging one hobby or interest for another in the search for their ultimate self.
Some identities can shift and change; one’s Jewish identity, however, must not be treated with such casual indifference. It cannot be worn with pride on day and tossed to the side in exchange for something brighter or shinier the next. The Tochacha is a warning to a nation about to enter not only the Holy Land, but also a new stage in their national development. The 40 years in the desert were the infancy and childhood of the Jewish people: delivered from Egypt, rebirthed at Sinai, and wholly reliant on God our Father for everything from food to clothing to shelter, the Jewish people were like children throughout those years. Entering Eretz Yisrael and beginning an agricultural lifestyle was a mark of increased independence, and would, in many senses, be akin to starting adolescence. God must warn the Jewish people not to treat Judaism, and the Mitzvos, casually, as a fling, a disposable identity that could be adorned when convenient and taken off at will. Rather, being a Jew is a full-time, complete identity.
This is why the Parsha begins with the entreaty to “walk in [God’s] statutes;” Rav Wolbe explains that God tells us to walk in His ways, not only to follow the laws, or learn them, but to set our every footstep according to this way of being. Thus, according to Rashi’s understanding, God’s warning that we must not treat our Avodas Hashem casually (“keri”) is not additional to the rest of the Tochacha, but central and essential to it. Before entering Eretz Yisrael, before starting a new developmental stage as a nation, God warns us that being a Jew means being a Jew all the time, through and through, to the best of our ability.
Anyone who has ever taken a standardized test will surely recall the feeling of confusion when completing the demographic questions that typically appear on the first page. As children, we might have glanced at the choices (Caucasian, Hispanic, Latin American, etc.) and wondered, where is the bubble for “Jewish”? Such is the all-encompassing quality of our Jewish identity.
It may be tempting at times to forsake, or alter, our identity, to camouflage ourselves into the rest of society; identifying as Jew, particularly in today’s culture and sociopolitical climate, can be uncomfortable, and it can be hard to always, always, always be first and foremost a Jew. How can we become Jews who treat our Jewish identity not casually but with the requisite seriousness and wholesomeness? Hashem’s warning not to treat our Judaism casually is a call to find the aspect of Jewish identity that is unique to each one of us, to truly own that identity in a way that is unique to each person. In this way, we will truly merit the many blessings promised to us, and certainly will receive the greatest blessing of all: to be a through-and-through Jew.