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Word of the Month: Are curses incentives for good behavior?

D’var Torah
Cantor David Lipp

Why do bad things happen to good people? Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a whole book (however slim) inspired, in part, by portions like the one we read this weekend. It concludes the book of Leviticus with a short promise of blessings for good behavior and a graphic series of curses for disobedience.
Reader, beware: cannibalism, diseases, debilitating paranoia, drought, plague, destruction and starvation. Not enough? Look towards the end of Deuteronomy for a far more extensive cornucopia of catastrophe that awaits the disobedient People of the Book.
As a disincentive for bad behavior, these warnings seem to have failed, according to later biblical writings. The destruction of the First Temple is punishment for cardinal sins, those that one should not commit even if one’s life is on the line: murder, idolatry and a variety of sexual crimes. The Second Temple is destroyed because of baseless hatred amongst our people.
But, even in biblical times, with the inclusion of the Book of Job, the editors were already uncomfortable with the implied causation of catastrophe by conduct unbecoming a holy people. Rabbi Kushner bases his response to the opening question on his personal experience with a child suffering from progeria and his reading of that oft-studied biblical fable of misfortune.
Still, many rabbis hold that our people’s myriad misfortunes over the millennia were the result of our sins, past and present. For individual misfortunes, they tell us to look at our deeds soberly, and, if we can’t find reason there, it must be that our Torah study is not up to par with our capacity.
Even after the Holocaust, there were theologians who found fault with our people, some blaming either supporting the founding of the State of Israel or not working hard enough towards that end. Both Zionists and anti-Zionists were theological justifications for God’s inaction as Hitler’s hordes descended upon us.
A 600-plus word d’var Torah will not resolve a theological conundrum that has confounded far more brilliant minds than mine. Let me just share my theological response to this portion with the aid of Rabbi Elliott Dorff, who responds to a similar reward- and-punishment text that traditional Jews recite twice a day as part of the tripartite prayer rubric of the Shema.
Rabbi Dorff notes a simple, but important, element often overlooked by those who try to find simplistic answers in ancient texts: tense. These texts are almost invariably in future tense. For instance, “If you walk according to my laws and commands, to keep them and perform them, then….”
So often we try to reverse-engineer God’s intent. The text doesn’t say, if bad things happen to you, it must be because I’m angry with you. God says you should act in such a way and that, if you misbehave, bad things will happen.
You may argue that this analysis is merely semantic, but I believe Rabbi Dorff is on point. The text we read in Bechukotai, and elsewhere, is a warning, an incentive for good behavior, not a diagnosis of our current communal or individual physical, mental and social health.
Further, never assume that anyone who is suffering from illness or bad luck “deserves” it because God clearly doesn’t favor them. Trust me, alternate monotheistic majorities have used these arguments against us too many times in the past two millennia. It’s a shame that we sometimes believed them.
The curses of this portion of Bechukotai are followed by a description of how to evaluate one’s worth when designating a gift to the sanctuary. More than one commentator has noted that a searing series of calamities against us for bad behavior is followed by a concrete description of our basic worth as human beings.
It’s a lesson we should learn for ourselves. And, extend to others.

(Cantor David Lipp is the hazzan of Adath Jeshurun.)

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