Community d'var Torah by Brianna Lavelle


Delivered May 31, 2019. If you’re interested in giving a d’var at a future Asiyah service, let us know!

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, is largely about consequences. When I first skimmed through it, I’ll admit I was mildly disappointed, because this parsha seemed so formulaic: if you follow God’s laws, God will grant you peace and prosperity. If you violate God’s laws, God will reign down on you a long and terrifying list of punishments. But I don’t believe in a God that sits up in the clouds, judging and punishing me for my transgressions. And because I don’t believe in that God, this parsha seemed near impossible to relate to. 

So what do I believe in? How can I take this idea of straying from and adhering to a certain set of laws and make it relevant to my lived reality? For starters I can say that my Judaism is not really about God. When I think of God, I think of the universe, of unending love, of community. At its core, my Judaism is about community. So, what if we replace the idea of “God’s laws” with “community values?” If we live by the values of our communities, we will feel included, supported, nourished. If we act contrary to community values, we will feel isolated, rejected, lonely.           

But community is fluctuating; community can feel impermeable, transitory, nebulous. What if we are born into communities that don’t feel like home? What if we are born into communities that cause us pain, that don’t treat us with the respect we know we deserve? 

I was born to an Irish father and a Jewish-American mother. My mom felt very alienated by Judaism as a child, and so she raised my siblings and I without religion, and without much of a Jewish identity. On the flipside, my father imparted onto us a very strong sense of Irish identity. I have nineteen Irish cousins, and my family spent two and half years living in Dublin. If you were to ask ten-year-old me who I was, I would have said without hesitation, “I’m Irish!”  

I actually began writing this d’var last week while I was in Ireland, visiting my family for the first time in two and a half years. Sitting in the Irish countryside surrounded by wheat fields and an unexpected ray of sunshine, I felt overwhelmed by melancholy. I spent most of my life feeling sort-of Jewish and very Irish, and now, on this visit to a former home, I realized suddenly how much I felt like I did not belong.

I love my Irish family very much, but as the person I am today, I can’t really be myself around them. My experience of mental illness has been central to my story for the past five years, and many of my Irish family members do not seem to understand my experience as being “real.” They won’t talk to me about it, even when I know they talk about me behind my back. Two years ago, my uncle refused to bring my cousins to visit me when I was inpatient at a psychiatric hospital, and we are no longer on speaking terms. My dad told me that he did not want me to visit Ireland without him because my relatives think I’m emotionally unstable. He says they are just worried about me, but I know in my heart that it is a worry tainted inextricably with judgment, and that hurts. 

I know that my Irish relatives are good people, but I also realize now that they are not my people. I was born into their community, but if I tried to fully follow the values of their community, I would be hurting myself; I would be denying the self that I have been intentionally crafting for many years, the Brianna that has emerged courageously from so much pain and so much loss. And I do not think I would receive the peace and the prosperity that this parsha, Bechukotai, promises.  

So I turn now to Maimonides’s interpretation of Bechukotai. Maimonides highlights the Hebrew word keri in the text. Leviticus chapter 26 verse 21 says, “And if you remain keri towards Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.” if you act towards God with keri, God will act towards you with keri. Keri can be translated as rebelliousness, indifference, reluctance. But Maimonides draws the connection between keri and mikreh, which means “by chance.” If you treat life as the product of mere chance, God will leave your fate to chance. 

This interpretation introduces the idea of intent, of choice. Some of us here were born Jewish, some of us were not. But we have all made the choice to be here, and by being here, we are all actively contributing to the construction of the norms and values of our Asiyah community. We give love to this community, and we receive love in return.

Exactly five years ago on this day, May 31st, I became a Bat Mitzvah. I was seventeen years old. I was not raised Jewish, but I have and continue to make the choice to be Jewish. The lack of home I felt last week in Ireland feels less scary knowing I do feel at home in this Asiyah community, and in the other Jewish and non-Jewish communities to which I actively belong.  

Being here is the opposite of treating my life as the product of mere chance. I do not think that being Jewish is superior to being Irish; I think that for me in this moment, I do not resonate with my Irish family, and I do resonate with my Jewish community. Perhaps making the intentional choice to be part of this community and not another is the ultimate way in which I adhere to its laws and receive its love. 

Leaving one community and joining another can be intimidating. But as this Torah portion states so clearly, giving ourselves the freedom to choose is refusing to treat our lives as the product of mere chance, and that makes the home, the love, the community we receive that much sweeter. 

Shabbat Shalom.