Shabbat Shalom everyone.
One of the conversations I recall having with my father way back when was about people’s fascination, even obsession, with bad things. As a kid, I remember that whenever I did something good (an A in school or helping my mom in the kitchen), my parents would tell me “good job”, and that was that. That was my mitzvah note. Short and to the point.
But when I did something bad… oh my! There was at the very least a long speech from my mom or dad, at worst some privilege removed or a couple days of strained relations. Why did you do it? Don’t you ever think about the consequences? How many times have I told you to be more careful? Etc. I’m sure parents and even grandparents in the room can relate to that.
So, the question I had for my father back then was: Why are adults so focused on the bad things, while ignoring or glossing over the good so easily?
My father’s answer was pretty much always the same: “Don’t worry about it. You’re still a kid. You’ll understand it some day. You’ll probably even do it to your kids. It’s human nature, that’s all: people just talk about the bad more than they talk about the good.”
Time passed. The long speeches and consequences from my parents became more scarce, as I moved out and started my life as an adult. But the issue stayed on my mind, especially as I was now noticing it in other areas of life, not just parenting. The news on TV followed the same pattern: a little on the good, then LOTS of time on the bad. A word or two on a good samaritan’s deed and then, a ton more on the wars, the terror attacks, the crimes of the day, or on the large-scale scary implications of some political move or market crash. The newspapers were the same, the political discourse, the entire world in short.
So, my question stood. And, without an alternative explanation for it, so did my father’s answer: “you’ll get it eventually; it’s just human nature, that’s the way things are”.
In this week’s parsha we find an instance of this strange, yet so common theme. In chapter 26 of Vayikra (Leviticus), the Torah lists a series of blessings and curses, the famous tocheichah, the admonition or reproof. The blessings if we listen to G-d’s commandments and walk in His ways. The curses if — G-d forbid! — we stray from the path.
What is strange, again, is the proportion or the two. The first 13 verses of the chapter talk about the brachot, the blessings. From verse 14 until the end of the chapter — a total of 33 verses — we read the klalot, the curses. Almost three times as many curses than blessings!
In his commentary on this chapter, one of the great mefarshim of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra picks up on this particularity. Why is it happening? Why does talk about evil overwhelms talk about good? His answer to my lifelong question is the following:
Certain empty-headed people have said that the curses are more numerous than the blessings. This is untrue. Rather, the blessings are given in general terms, whereas the curses are given in detail in order to impress and to frighten the listeners. If you read carefully, what I have said will become evident. — Ibn Ezra
Ok… So when I was a teen, I’ve been told that “I’m just a kid and I will eventually get it”. Now, that I certainly am no longer a kid, I am told that I am “empty-headed” just because I asked the question? Hmmm… I’m not even sure in which instance I am supposed to feel worse. 🙂
But seriously now, Ibn Ezra’s answer makes a lot of sense. The substance of the two sets is very different: the blessings are delivered in general terms, while the curses are very specific and detailed. We are told that if we do good, we’ll get peace and prosperity. In what form, the Torah doesn’t say. Just that it will be there, for all to enjoy. But if we don’t live up to G-d’s expectations, evil will come to us by way of “panic, swelling and burning fever”. We’ll “sow in vain, for our enemies will eat the crops”. Our land will be like iron and copper, our pride will be broken, our cattle will die; there will be famine, pestilence, suffering, as well as horrible and unspeakable acts perpetrated in our midst. No less than five separate series of curses are uttered in chapter 26, each more serious and worrisome than the one before it. And if you read classical non-Jewish translations of the Bible, you might even encounter harsh renderings of the Hebrew expression וגעלה נפשי אתכם (“vegaalah nafshi etchem”) from verse 30 as “G-d’s spirit will hate you” or “G-d’s spirit will be repulsed by you”. This is very serious indeed, as the curses pile up to make the blessings almost pale in comparison.
So why is this happening? Why the curses are so detailed, and the blessings so vague? The truth is that there is something of great value in both my father’s answer AND in Ibn Ezra’s.
Professor Clifford Nass from Stanford University, who wrote extensively about human-computer and human-human interaction, as well as about various topics related to the way the human mind handles information, explains this phenomenon as follows:
This is a general tendency for everyone. Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail. The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres. Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant things — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones. — Prof. Clifford Nass
So, if you listen carefully to professor Nass, what the Torah does is indeed very normal. Dibrah Torah be’lashon bnei adam — the Torah speaks the language of people. Or, in this case, it caters to how the human mind is wired to handle information: more attention to the bad, less to the good.
This answer makes a lot of sense. After all, Hashem, who is the author of the Torah, is also the Creator of humankind. He knows — even better than we know it — how and what we need to hear for maximum effect. And what is the goal in our parsha? To make us THINK about the possible outcome of our actions, and change our ways for the better, before it’s too late.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks — who, I’m sure, needs no introduction — has an insight about this in the form of an explanation about Jewish prophecy:
The Torah — he writes — disbelieves practices such as soothsaying, oracle or rune reading, and other forms of divination. Why? Because the future is not pre-scripted. It depends on us and on the choices we make. The Jewish prophet tells of the future that will happen IF we do not heed the danger and mend our ways. The prophet does not predict; he or she warns. If a prediction [by those who practice divination or sorcery] comes true, it has succeeded. But if a Jewish prophecy [about a bad outcome] comes true, then it has failed [because it wasn’t able to inspire and motivate those to whom it was addressed to change their ways and avert the bad outcome]. — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
This is deep stuff. The reason for the blessings and the curses in our parsha is not related to our future. It is related to our present, and the choices we can make NOW, to shape our future in a positive manner. And as to why there are more curses than blessings, the reason is simple: because we need to hear them in great detail, to visualize them clearly. We need food for thought, if you will, not to scare us into submission, but rather to enlighten us about how dangerous certain paths can be, and the terrible places they can lead to.
There is also science to support this idea. On a historical and evolutionary scale, people who remember the bad more than the good have a greater chance to survive. Roy Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, writes:
Bad emotions have more impact than good ones. You are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50. But those who are attuned to bad things would have — in the course of history — been more likely to survive threats and would have increased the probability of passing along their genes, because more awareness of danger implies a greater chance to avoid it. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones. — Prof. Roy Baumeister
* * *
But there is much more to this than evolution. The message the Torah has for us in seemingly insisting on the curses and glossing over the blessings is also one of deep and unconditional LOVE.
My parents did not chastised me so much when I was a kid because they hated me or because they wanted me to feel bad. On the contrary, they did it because they loved me, and wanted me to turn out well in life. They emphasized the bad so much davka because they wanted me to be conscious of the potential negative consequences of my actions, and change my behavior before it was too late. In a sense, my parents were the equivalent of a personal prophet.
And the same goes for the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people: in Bechukotai, Hashem talks to us not as a despotic ruler who threatens his people with famine, pestilence and war when they slip up. He talks to us as a parent, a guide, a voice inside our head, whose goal is to encourage us to make good choices. After all, as explained by Ibn Ezra, and Rabbi Sacks, or by professors Nass and Baumeister, He knows that we need the the awareness of how bad things can turn to motivate us to make the right choices. Our survival depends on it. Our happiness. Our future.
It is probably for this very reason that the divine Name used in our parsha is Hashem, not Elokim. Because the voice of our parsha is primarily one of mercy and care, and not of punishment and retribution. It is for this reason that we are reassured at the very end of chapter 26 that: “despite all this — despite all the curses — while the children of Israel will be in the land of our enemies, [Hashem] will not have been revolted by them, nor will He have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul His covenant with them — for I am Hashem, their G-d.” I am Hashem, He says, a parent who loves them, a Father concerned about their wellbeing, who wants them to renounce evil and start again on the right path.
This verse at the end of our parsha, which talks about the way Hashem will treat us in exile, is, in my opinion, the key of understanding why we talk so much about the bad. Because in talking about it, we develop hope for a better world. We see where we are, and the choices we have in front of us. And we become motivated to choose the right path forward.
If the beginning of our parsha is the wake-up call, the end of chapter 26 is, as Rabbi Sacks calls it, “the birth of hope. Not hope as a dream, a wish or a desire, but as the very shape of history itself. G-d is just. He may punish. He may hide His face. But He will not break His word. He will fulfil His promise. He will redeem His children. He will bring them home.”
* * *
And He has brought us home. Tomorrow is Yom Yerushalayim, which alongside Yom Ha’Atzmaut is the day when we feel G-d’s hand in our modern life possibly more than ever. After almost two thousand years in exile, G-d brought us back to the Land of Israel and to Yerushalayim, the Holy City, where His Divine Presence dwells.
We had our share of suffering, of klalot, and the time has finally come for the brachot in our lives, may they finally arrive in complete form, bimheirah beyameinu. “That’s just the way things are”, as my father would put it. A double voice of curses and blessings is what moved us forward through history, all the way up to today. A double voice of harshness and embrace is G-d’s way of reminding us that He’s been constantly watching and listening, enabling us today to come back to our heritage and prosper. A double voice of suffering and happiness is a reminder that He is our parent who loves us endlessly, and always wants us to succeed.
As children of our parents and as children of G-d, we need to hear that our parents love us. We need to see them care. We need them to be concerned, outraged even, when we slip up. We need them to shout at us, to plead with us, to chastise us. We need them to paint, sometimes in very vivid colors, the potential outcomes of our deeds, so that we learn to make better choices for our future. We don’t just need pampering and smiles from our parents. We need guidance too, and frowns, and harsh words when we deserve them.
That is what loving parents do. And that is what G-d does too, out of the deepest love for His children, the people of Israel.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Yom Yerushalayim!
Delivered at Beth Zion Congregation, Montreal
June 1, 2019 – Shabbat Bechukotai
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