Navigating the grey areas in life
Bechukotai – Leviticus 26:3-27:34
f you have ever been stuck in a rut and woke up and realized in a moment that getting out of it is possible, then this parasha reveals that the Israelites had the same challenges.
Bechukotai is all about the “if … then” construct — if you obey the laws, then goodness will follow. If, however, you disobey the laws, then not only will there be one negative consequence, it will be sevenfold and if that’s not enough, sevenfold more will await you. Chapter 26 provides several of these paradigms, and it is fair to note that there are nearly three times as many verses dedicated to the negative consequences as opposed to the positive. (The official count is 11 verses for the positive and 31 for the negative.)
Why does there have to be this disparity between the two? And why is there such an emphasis on the negative? For a moment, let’s consider modern psychology.
It has been reported that for every negative experience we have, it takes between four and eight positive interactions to change this. This is one reason why “first impressions” matter and are impossible to “undo.” It might very well be a reason parents encourage children to be on “their best behavior.” Consider how much energy it takes to regain someone’s trust after they have lost it, it’s not just one for one; rather, it takes this exponential positive work to change the tides.
In this logic, the text actually uses the negative outcomes to play into fear and scare the Israelites into obedience. It is clear that the Israelites do not want any of these negative outcomes, so of course they will obey. But what happens if the positive is not met, and we find ourselves living in the middle, with neither the consequence nor reward?
This grey area is perhaps the most challenging. Whether we consider the Israelites or ourselves, it becomes a challenge with motivation, to keep on the path toward goodness, even though clearly the negative elements are not there. While there are solutions to avoiding the negative consequences, the greater challenge is what happens when one is with neither the consequence nor reward. This middle ground is one where direction may be absent, at least externally. Again, the “if … then” provides the rewards and consequences where appropriate, but the rewards are over time and require a greater investment, and if there are no opportunities for a check-in, then limited direction results. The solution is a challenging one as the motivation must come from within, yielding an empowered individual who can navigate and look forward to the positive outcomes. Much of life exists in this grey area, requiring intrinsic motivation as the dire circumstances simply don’t exist and the reward is just out of reach.
The question must be asked, though: “Is this so bad?” The answer in short is “no,” as there is probably always a safe distance between the consequences and where we stand in this moment. While it might be hard to recognize, it is surely the case that we are not starving, even if we don’t always get what we want. Yet because we know the negative could exist, we need to find at least four more positive instances of being satiated to remember that those examples are likely to continue.
Bechukotai reminds us that fear can provide a gentle push to keep us moving forward, and aspiration should not prevent us from enjoying where we live — in the middle. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek — may we continue to grow in strength, recognizing the intrinsic motivation of our lives as we grow forward.
Justin Sakofs is a seasoned Jewish educator, having worked in day schools, synagogues, and organizations with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. The creator of MagneticShul, he works to network families together and empower them to own their Jewish journey. To learn more, visit magneticshul.com.