Thursday, May 15, 2014

Truth or Consequences - Reflections on Parashat Bechukotai 5774

If Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King had a baby, and that guy set out to write the saddest, most blood-curdling story ever, it would read a lot like this week’s Torah portion. Called in Hebrew the “Tochachah” or Admonition, we are warned in the most graphic terms what will happen if we Jews abandon Gcd and His Torah – seven escalating stages of war, plague, famine, paralyzing fear, exile and painful death. Ouch.

The punishments are balanced by rewards. Happily, the beginning of the Torah portion begins with the flip side – the good stuff that will happen if we cling to Gcd and Torah. Excellent. Lovely. There’s only one problem with this whole setup. We are taught elsewhere in the Torah that we don’t know the rewards for obedience to Gcd’s will, or the punishments for rebellion. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states: “Be as careful with a light mitzvah as with a serious mitzvah, for no one knows the reward for either.” (2:1) Well which one is it?  It seems like a pretty serious contradiction.

In truth, the Mishnah is bang on: we have no clue what is defined as a big mitzvah or an insignificant mitzvah, or what the eternal reward is for any mitzvah, or even its opposite, Gcd forbid. Therefore, it follows that Bechukotai is not about rewards and punishments for deeds or misdeeds. It can’t be. In fact, (brace yourself, I’m about to say something very bold here) I don’t think Gcd punishes us at all.

What? No punishment? Ka-ching. Correct. Gcd, who is utterly and completely good; Gcd, who is the font of all goodness in the universe; Gcd, who wants only good for all of His creations; Gcd, whom we address with the title of “Goodness” three times a day*; that Gcd doesn’t punish us for our misdeeds. He doesn’t have to; we punish ourselves.

Bechukotai is not about reward and punishment, but it is all about actions and their consequences.  Good consequences naturally flow from good acts. The consequence is embedded in the deed itself, encoded, as it were, in the DNA of the mitzvah. And of course, the opposite is also, tragically, true. 

Gcd built the universe on cause and effect.  The universe is not random, and that is a very good thing. But that is also why the vast majority of the pain in our lives is self-inflicted: our pain stems from the consequences of our less-than-ideal choices.

Let’s say a person does something really heinous, like premeditated murder, and then does teshuvah – a very real, gut-wrenching penitence, meaning confession, regret, amends, resolve, etc.; a sincere teshuva that shakes him to the core of his being. Through his teshuva, he may be forgiven for the murder in the next world, the world of true reward and punishment; but even a genuine penitent must still deal with the consequences of his old ways in this world. You can fish the pebble out of the pond, but you can't take back the ripples.

The problem is that we don’t always see the fallout from our behavior right away; sometimes it takes years for the chickens to come home to roost. The heart attack at age 57 started with the daily ration of bacon and eggs at age 7. Folks live on the couch, eat plastic food for decades and wonder why they have cancer, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. Then we start taking meds to correct these problems, and more pills to counteract with the side effects of the other pills…a downward spiral, kind of like the seven levels of the Tochachah. 

Comes Bechukotai to remind us of the ineluctable causality between action & consequence, even if the cause and effect are separated by decades. And maybe that's why this section is called “Admonition” and not “Punishment”. 'Pay heed,' the Torah is saying, 'crises don't arise in a vacuum. Connect the dots and you will arrive at the correct conclusion.'

So the silver lining in this very sobering parshah is that, through our decisions and actions, we are (at least in some measure) in control of our own destiny. That is very empowering. We are not victims of capricious, cruel fate. Next, popping up a level, the aggregate of our individual choices determines our national destiny, and by extension the destiny of the world. Hashem desperately wants us to choose properly, as does any parent who wishes to see their children spared of unnecessary pain.

In the run up to Shavuot, the festival of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, let us pray for less hurt, more healing, and perhaps...better decision making.

Shabbat Shalom.

* We say in the Amidah, "...Your Name is "Goodness" and to You praise is befitting."

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