May 15, 2020
The book of Leviticus concludes on this Shabbat in a double portion, Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34) by outlining the blessings that will follow if the people are faithful to their covenant with God. Then it describes the curses that will befall them if they are not. The general principle is clear. In biblical times, the fate of the nation mirrored the conduct of the nation. If people behaved well, the nation would prosper. If they behaved badly, eventually bad things would happen. That is what the Prophets knew. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Not always immediately but ultimately, good is rewarded with good, bad with bad.
Our double portion clearly sets out the terms of that equation: if you obey God, there will be rain in its season, the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit; there will be peace. The curses, though, are almost three times as long and much more dramatic in the language they use. The images are vivid and quite savaged. There is a pulsing rhythm to the verses, as if the harsh fate that would overtake the nation is cumulative and expediting. The effect is intensified by the repeated hammer blows: “If after all this … if you remain hostile … if in spite of these things … if in spite of this.” The word keri, key to the whole passage, is repeated seven times. It appears nowhere else in the entire Tanach (Hebrew Scriture). Its meaning is uncertain. It may mean rebelliousness, obstinacy, indifference, hard-heartedness, reluctance or being-left-to-chance. But the basic principle is clear: “If you act toward Me with keri, says God, I will turn that same attribute against you, and you will be devastated.”
It has long been a custom to read the tochachah, the curses, both here and in the parallel passage in Deuteronomy 28, in a low voice in the synagogue, which has the effect of robbing them of their terrifying power if said out loud. This entire section; however, seems to be in contradiction to our tradition of repentance and forgiveness.
The whole idea contained in the 13 Attributes of Compassion is that God’s love and forgiveness are stronger than God’s justice and punishment. Why, therefore, are the curses in this week’s portion so much longer and stronger than the blessings? The answer is that God loves and forgives, but with the proviso that, when we do wrong, we acknowledge the fact, express remorse, make restitution to those we have harmed, and repent. The reason the curses are so dramatic is not because God seeks to punish, but the precise opposite. The Talmud (Berachot 3a) tells us that God weeps when God allows disaster to strike God’s 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 fire. The parent may deliberately intend to scare the child, but he or she does so out of love, not severity.
Judaism is a religion of love and forgiveness. But it is also a religion of justice. The punishments in the Torah are there not because God loves to punish, but because God wants us to act well. Imagine a country that had laws but no punishments. Would people keep the law? No. Everyone would choose to be a free-rider, taking advantage of the efforts of others without contributing oneself. Without punishment, there is no effective law, and without law there is no society. 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.
I believe that being warned of the bad helps us to choose the good. Too often we make the wrong choices because we don’t think of the consequences. That’s how global warming happened. That’s how financial crashes happen. That’s how societies lose their solidarity. Too often, people think of today, not the day after tomorrow. The Torah, stating in the most graphic detail what can happen to a nation when it loses its moral and spiritual bearings, is speaking to us in every generation, saying: Beware. Take note. Don’t function on autopilot. Once a society begins to fall apart, it is already too late. Avoid the bad. Choose the good. Think long and choose the road that leads to blessings.