“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” [Leviticus 26:3]
That’s the opening of this week’s Torah: a two-letter Hebrew word: “im” (Hebrew) that in English is also only two letters: “if.” And everything depends upon it.
A reminder of the blessings of living by God’s covenant follows, and then a longer catalog of the devastation arising from violating that contract with God. The latter is called the “Tochachah” – a reprimand, warning, or rebuke. It occupies most of the opening of this week’s Torah reading and unmistakably is intended to entice or frighten the Israelites into fulfilling God’s instructions. After all, don’t all individuals want a way to maximize life’s rewards, minimize suffering, and enable everybody to live peacefully?
The contract permits no exceptions. Each person has to live by God’s covenant if everyone is to benefit from the plan. God even frames the outcome of covenantal living in entirely this-worldly language. The unambiguous payoff for a truly Jewish life is not defined by afterlife, inner peace or fulfillment of impulsive wishes. Instead, it shapes individuals capable of mutual aid, trust, and peaceable conflict resolution, who have secure families, health, national unity, and land producing food enough for all.
Traditionally the Tochechah was read with great reluctance, in an undertone as fast as possible. Few wanted it in their Torah aliyah. Yet we need to recognize that this text is actually one of enormous hope and promise, a virtual statement of mature confidence. If God believes we are capable of choosing life over death and of working with the enlightened self-interest that creates community and human cooperation over raw selfishness, then maybe there is a deep faith in Jewish and human potential. Then the Tochechah is God’s insistence on open, blunt communication precisely because we can repair our conduct – if we are prepared to diminish ego and impulsiveness.
By stating in advance that there are the profound costs to bad behavior, Torah reminds us yet again what Maimonides a couple of millennia later said: that much of human suffering is self-inflicted because often we make choices without forethought and long-term regard for ourselves, let alone others.
The Tochachah makes no sense unless we believe that God has organized the universe so that we have the blessings of intelligence and skill to avert calamities sometimes and to cooperate to survive others. That, friends, is God’s faith in humankind. If only …
Rabbi Larry Pinsker is a retired community rabbi formerly of Congregation Beit Tikvah in Baltimore.