On Blessings and Curses

Leviticus 26: 3-5, 18-20

by Nancy Coren

May 8, 2021

IF YOU FOLLOW MY LAWS AND FAITHFULLY OBSERVE MY COMMANDMENTS, I WILL GRANT YOUR RAINS IN THEIR SEASONS, SO THE EARTH SHALL YIELD ITS PRODUCE AND THE TREES OF THE FIELD THEIR FRUIT.  YOUR THRESHING SHALL OVERTAKE THE VINTAGE, AND YOUR VINTAGE SHALL OVERTAKE THE SOWING; YOU SHALL EAT YOUR FILL OF BREAD AND DWELL SECURELY IN YOUR LAND.   (LEV. 26:  3-5)

And IF, FOR ALL THAT YOU DO NOT OBEY ME, I WILL GO ON TO DISCIPLINE YOU SEVENFOLD FOR YOUR SINS, AND I WILL BREAK YOUR PROUD GLORY, I WILL MAKE YOUR SKIES LIKE IRON AND YOUR EARTH LIKE COPPER; SO THAT YOUR STRENGTH SHALL BE SPENT TO NO PURPOSE.  YOU LAND SHALL NOT YIELD ITS PRODUCE, NOR SHALL THE TREES OF THE LAND YIELD THEIR FRUIT.   (LEV. 26 18-20)

Today is a double portion, Behar-Behukkotai.  The two sections I just shared with you are from the latter portion, the very last parasha found in the book of Vayikra, Leviticus.  The verses I chose is part of a section known as the Tochecha, a section about rebuke, about blessings and curses.

These warnings acted as an incentive to keep the ancient Israelites in line with G-d’s plans for how they were to behave as they entered the Land of Israel.  Fear of a punishing G-d and the motivation provided by a rewarding G-d was meant to encourage the people to follow G-d’s laws which were seen to be in their own best interest.

Rambam understood the need for the tochecha as “deplorable but unavoidable because of people’s limited insight….he felt a good man must not wonder, “If I perform these commandments, which are virtues, and refrain from these transgressions what will I get out of it?.... Instead one should be like a servant who serves his master without expecting a reward. But this is a very difficult goal to achieve and not everyone can achieve it.  Therefore, in order that the masses stay faithful and do the commandments, it was permitted to tell them that they might hope for a reward and warn them against transgression out of fear of punishment.”

A modern commentary about why the negative curses were needed was written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z’l.  He wrote, “The reason the curses are so dramatic is not because God seeks to punish, but the precise opposite. The Talmud tells us that God weeps when He allows disaster to strike His people: “Woe to Me, that due to their sins I destroyed My house, burned My Temple and exiled them [My children] among the nations of the world.” The curses were meant as a warning. They were intended to deter, scare, discourage. They are like a parent warning a young child not to play with electricity. The parent may deliberately intend to scare the child, but he or she does so out of love, not severity.”

Along those same lines, the Torah also seems to recognize something about human nature that we now seem to understand as well.  “Humans are designed – “hardwired” – to take notice of and rapidly react to threat. It usually will cause a fight or flight reaction in us. Perhaps that’s why we seem to take notice of bad news happening in our neighborhoods more than the good news….why reports of illness in our midst cause a visceral reaction by those hearing and seeing about the effects of this pandemic.  Brain research tells us that when cortisol is released in our brains, it not only shuts down our prefrontal cortex, it lasts 26 hours and distorts our perception of reality.  When oxytocin, the feel-good hormone is released in our brains from positive events and positive comments, it lasts only two hours.  So, in effect, if we are to have a positive sense of our world and ourselves, we have to engage in language and actions which promote the constant release of our “feel-good hormone, oxytocin.”  The Torah doesn’t exactly speak of the behaviors that will result in blessings in that same way, but it does recognize the power of constant proper behaviors resulting in blessings.

As I looked at the tochecha this week, I noticed that each section, both the blessings and the curses, begins with the same word, IF (EEM in Hebrew).

IF suggests possibilities. IF suggests cause and effect.  IF opens doors to the future.  Judaism does not paint a rosy picture of life, it recognizes that there are physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges that one will face just because one is alive.  That being said, however, Judaism is not a religion that believes in determinism. The Torah is a blueprint for life, not a road map. The future is not predestined. God can give us advice, set up our moral foundations, orient us towards the future, and even give us advice on where to go, but the choice is our responsibility.

We are responsible for making choices.  We do have control over our responses to any given situation.  That would be a psychological way of looking at doing mitzvot!

The Torah point of view is that we can work via the performance of mitzvot to positively affect not only our own life, but the life of the community as well.  Bechukkotai suggests that the way to achieve a healthy balance in life is to follow G-d’s laws.  The reward for right behavior isn’t necessarily about growing rich monetarily, but growing rich within our own sense of self because we know we have done what is right.

As I mentioned the tochecha reminds us that our collective actions do affect the nature of the world in which we live.  We can either make it steer towards compassion and justice or we can let it slide towards violence and inequality.  The choice is ours.

Rabbi Sydney Greenberg, z’l, explained that the tochecha this way.  We are told that if we fulfill certain conditions in the way we live our lives, there will be consequences, both positive and negative.  A helpful way to think about this concept of reward and punishment is by looking at the word Life. In English that word …L..I..F..E..has the letters i…f….in the middle of the word.  When you look at the word  life in Hebrew, chayim, it is spelled with two yuds in the middle.  Those two yuds spell G-d’s name.  You can put these two ideas together to see that  this Torah passage is designed to tells us that if we live a G-d centered life, a life that values the way Torah tells us that G-d would like us to live, then our inner selves will be complete, at peace, full of inner joy that comes from knowing that we are living in harmony with G-d’s wishes.

I would venture to say that most individuals know that when we only care about our own well-being and not about others, when we treat others cruelly, that a still small voice often speaks to us in the quiet of the night, not allowing us to lie down in peace.  One of the rewards of living a moral life might not be material wealth, but I do believe it leads to a sense of inner tranquility.  Isn’t that something we hope for every Shabbat when we say, “I will bring peace to the land and you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you?”

You can argue that adherence to mitzvot is not a guarantee for a life of external rewards, but just think what the world would look like today if people really acted in ways that indicated they believed their actions affect the world in which we live. What would it be like to wake up and not feel as if we were slipping into a world of violence and fear. What would it feel like to wake up to a world where we could trust everyone one meet and every message we receive from various sources?

Do you believe that the actions you take in life have a direct effect on the world?  If so, in what ways?  If you don’t think that your own actions will make a difference one way or the other, do you think that our collective actions will affect the nature of the world in which we live and how we will feel about being part of that world?  Which collective actions do you see as having the biggest impact on our world today?

Do you agree or disagree with this statement:  “The more powerfully one can present the bad, the more likely people are to choose the good. That is why the tochachah is so powerful, dramatic and fear-inducing. The fear of bad is the most powerful motivator of good.”

If you know the consequences are you more likely to choose the right action?

Shabbat Shalom

 

Image: Anastasiya Markovich/Wikimedia Commons 

The Response

Motivations, Threats, and Real World Effects by Shellen Lubin

Interesting analogy, God like a parent who is trying to warn a child not to play with electricity. But is it an apt analogy? A parent trying to warn a child away from electricity or a hot stove or an open ledge is trying to keep the child from doing something that will actually lead to real world consequences. They don’t tell the child the ceiling will collapse from any of those actions. But skies like iron and earth like copper? I don’t think there’s any correlation between them and earthly transgressions (well, maybe now, with how we abuse the earth). It’s more like a parent who tells a child that if they masturbate, they’ll get some horrible disease or their hands will fall off. Sure, it’s a threat, but an absurd one. If people believe it, then people can start believing that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuals, or that New Orleans deserved Hurricane Katrina, or that this pandemic is God’s wrath for pick-your-issue.

But even crazy, distorted beliefs affect the world--ripple effects like butterfly wings causing tides, or sometimes like elephant stampedes--look at our world now and how it is being affected by “the big lie” about the election that is still being promoted, keeping us all from making peace with people with political differences because we cannot even accept each other’s facts.

But let’s keep the question to real world consequences to real world actions, or maybe even karmic consequences--the belief that what we put out into the world will at some point come back to us--whether we consider it a good or bad result--whether it is the gift of something joyful or the gift of a necessary lesson.

There is still the question about what motivates us each most, you know, the carrot or the stick, the carrot that draws us forward or the stick that keeps us from falling back where we will be punished. Well, the reality is we’re not all the same.

And each of us is not even the same for different temptations and different punishments. In fact, as self-aware and self-regulating adults--which we all are trying to be--part of the art is learning how to work with our individual ways of responding to carrots and sticks, finding what balance of them works best for us at any given time to keep us on the paths we most desire for ourselves.

This was my New Year Poem last year, the year before The Year of Hibernation. It has many slashes in it as I kept re-finding, re-stating the ideas I was trying to get to. There’s one word in it you might not know--grok--do you know that? I’ve been using it since high school, when I read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land--grok--more deep than love--love plus empathy and understanding, understanding that is deep in your bones and your soul. Grokking is what we try to do together each time we meet. So that’s the word you might not know: grok.

I have longtime said / sighed / written / screamed that We must always question
what’s been taught to us /
What’s accepted / expected / societally extolled Including the assumptions of the questions themselves
Continuing the journey deeper and deeper
Unpeeling falsehoods / fallacies
Like inexhaustible layers of an onion.

That notion is being tested these days in myriad ways As we all are challenged
to recognize / re-consider So much we have assumed
about ourselves / the world --
How we have benefited from unearned privilege
How we have been denied and disrespected
How we have denied and disrespected ourselves / each other / the other.

We must be willing to look / see / own The complex reality which is
Our history / our current lives Individually / collectively.
A continual state of unmasking. A constant humbling.

 It is not enough that some god forgives us /
That we forgive each other / that we forgive ourselves.
We must heal wounds / repair damage / extend effort To make things right / better / different
In this dance marathon
This constant shimmy between
Changing / adapting / pushing / pushing back.

Right now there’s mostly push and shove /
Conflict in all directions / pushing forward / pushing back.
Accepting it doesn't mean it's right / good / all right / all good Just that it is.
But whether or not the conflict is always necessary, Dealing with it in some way is.

What do you do?
Do you make light in the world?
Do you light a spark? / a candle? / a fire?
Do you light up a room? / a stage? / a town? Are you accountable for the light you make?
Do you take responsibility for the expected / unexpected Blowouts / backfires / burns?

 If we are satisfied with anything / everything / the way it is Or avoiding conflict by any means
We will be stuck / stunted forever.
If we are always angry / wailing with dissatisfaction We will be interminably miserable.

But if we grok / get deeply in our bones
That dissatisfaction and conflict are necessary To bring discovery / growth / progress
We can continue to slash through the jungle / Grapple with conflict / chew its cud
Finding / making light along the way
Finding / making some kind of purpose / peace / glory In that paradox / contradictory co-existing reality: Satisfaction-in-Dissatisfaction / Hope-in-Chaos.

 

Shellen Lubin December, 2019