D’var Torah for Bechukotai: the spiritual call to empty one’s cup

teacupThe last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, Bechukotai, begins with an if/then: “If you follow My engraved-commandments and faithfully observe My connective-commandments…”

If we allow God’s commandments to be engraved upon our hearts, and if we guard the mitzvot and keep them close to us, then a lot of good things will come to pass, says Torah, including good rains and good harvests and peace in the land. But the promise that leapt out at me this year was “you will eat old grain long stored, and you will have to clear out the old to make room for the new.”

What does it mean to eat old grain long stored? To me this evokes what we’ve set aside for the proverbial rainy day. Torah seems to be suggesting that if we keep the mitzvot, if we allow them to work on us and perhaps even change us, we will feel safe consuming the resources we set aside. Because an abundant flow of new blessings will be waiting to come our way, and we won’t be able to receive those blessings until we make room for them.

Maybe some of you know the Buddhist parable of Nan-in and the teacup. Nan-in was a Buddhist monk, and someone came to him to learn the wisdom of Buddhism. Being a good host, he served tea to his visitor. He filled his visitor’s cup and then kept pouring the tea, so that it overflowed. The visitor leapt up, angry, and demanded to know why Nan-in was making such a mess. “You are like this teacup,” said Nan-in. “Your mind is already full of what you think you know. How can I pour in the wisdom you seek unless you first empty your cup?”

Sometimes spiritual life demands that we empty our granaries, that we empty our cup: that we let go of our certainties and allow new possibilities to change us.

Notice this, though: Torah isn’t saying that if we have trust in the abundance that is coming, then we’ll be able to do the mitzvot. Doing the mitzvot comes first. Act first, and trust will follow. And even if it doesn’t, act as though it does. Do the mitzvot, and then take the leap of faith of trusting that abundance is coming. The first thing we’re asked to do is to practice mitzvot. The second is to trust that the universe will repay us with shefa, with the boundless flow of blessing.

This isn’t investment advice — Torah isn’t telling us to burn our savings because if we follow the mitzvot we’ll be rewarded with riches. This is spiritual counsel. If we take on what our tradition calls ol malchut shamayim, “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” — if we accept the mitzvot upon ourselves — then God will ask us to take a leap of faith and to trust that good things are coming.

The word malchut, often translated as kingdom or sovereignty, has another meaning. To our mystics, malchut connotes Shechinah, the immanent indwelling Presence of God. Those of us who have been counting the Omer may have noticed that the seventh day of each week of the Omer is considered a day of malchut, a day of Shechinah’s presence. When we take on the mitzvot, we’re not just accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. We’re accepting the enfolding embrace of the Shechinah.

And when we know ourselves to be enfolded in God’s loving presence — when we know that we are loved by an unending love, when we can feel the connection of that loving presence wherever we go and whatever we do — then we can take the leap of faith that spiritual life demands. Then we can trust that there will be abundance in our lives and in our hearts.

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered this past Shabbat at CBI. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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