The choice to obey or defy God

The choice to obey or defy God

Behar-Behukotai | Leviticus 25:1-27:34

The largest part of this week’s double parasha is known as the tokhehah, which can be translated as warning, rebuke, or reproach. The Torah states, simply put, if you follow God’s laws, you will be blessed with prosperity, security, and victory over your enemies. However, if you do not follow God’s commandments, you will experience a long list of curses, including disease, crop failure, starvation, war, and exile.

In many communities, it is the custom for this passage to be read quickly and in a low voice. The aliyah is given to the Torah reader, who has to be there anyway, rather than calling up a member of the congregation to recite a blessing over these words. There are even people who leave the room when the tokhehah is read.

Certainly, we can understand why people might want to avoid hearing the Torah’s description of hardship and devastation, particularly because we know that so many of these curses have befallen the Jewish people during our history. But there’s another way of looking at it.

The Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen, 1835-1933, Poland) pointed out that avoiding this passage calls to mind a person who was warned not to walk along a certain path because it was filled with thorns and dangerous obstacles. The person, however, did not heed the warnings and decided to walk along this path. He did take one precaution, though — he blindfolded himself so that he would not see the various dangers. Of course, by blindfolding himself, he simply made the trip that much more dangerous. By the same token, there are those who believe that if they do not hear the tokhehah, nothing bad will happen to them. They do not realize that it is meant to arouse people to perform the commandments, and if one does not listen to it being read, he simply compounds the dangers to himself.

According to the Hafetz Hayim, our parasha is sort of the “Scared Straight” approach to Jewish observance. Yet we have this in Pirkei Avot: “Antigonus of Sokho taught, ‘Do not be like servants who serve their master expecting to receive a reward. Rather, be like servants who serve their master unconditionally, with no thought of reward. And let the fear of God determine your actions.’”

Key to understanding this teaching is that the phrase yirat shamayim, usually translated as “fear of God,” has nothing to do with being afraid. “Yirah” means awe rather than fear, and yirat shamayim means that we should be moved by awe and wonder, by our awareness of God as the Creator of the world and the author of Torah. Ideally, we are to follow God’s commandments out of love and awe, without any attention given to the possibility of reward or punishment.

Of course, that is an ideal, and it requires a certain level of maturity. It’s not uncommon to teach children about proper behavior using rewards and punishments — the granting or withholding of special privileges, a treat, or a timeout. We hope and expect that as they grow and learn, they will come to do the right thing for its own sake, even if there’s nothing in it for them.

But sometimes all of us — not just children — need a reminder. And so the Torah offers us the tokhehah, reminding us that God has given us free will, that we can choose to obey or defy God’s commandments. However, we must never forget that our choices have consequences.

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