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Hitting Bottom, Climbing Back Up
The concluding parshot of Leviticus offer us an interesting glimpse into our tradition. Parshah Behar mandates the Sabbatical and Jubilee years: One year in every seven, the land was to rest and replenish itself.
Every 50 years, all slaves were set free and land returned to its original owners. These ideals were so moving, the words were inscribed on the Liberty Bell: "You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof."
Parshat Behukotai begins with the blessings that will come to those who walk in God's ways: health, safety and abundance. Then it describes the fear, disease and dispersion that will occur if the newly constituted Israelites turn from God and depart from the path of Torah.
These verses, known as the Tochecha, have led to questions. Are its threats like those made by a king when concluding a vassal treaty to highlight the consequences of disloyalty? Or are they like the warnings parents give young children to keep them from harmful behavior?
Finally, while proper living often leads to well-being, accounts ranging back to the book of Job seem to challenge the Tochecha's sureties of divine recompense, dramatically illustrating times when the good suffer while evil prospers.
Whether or not these warnings have been proven historically true, many commentaries concentrate on the psychological dynamics that inform the Tochecha. One such text, the 17th-century Binah LeIttim, explores the verses: "And they shall confess their iniquity ... committed against Me ... and I also will walk contrary to them" (Leviticus 26:40-41). Why, it asks, might those who confess their sins continue to experience God's antagonism? The answer: Confession without repentance might constitute a graver transgression than the original act.
Sources from the "Ethics of the Fathers" to behavioral psychology and neurobiology testify to the self-reinforcing patterns engendered by repeated behavior. We now know all too well of their potentially addictive traps.
In 2007 a minister, identified only as Dale W., wrote of a complicated dynamic he called the Sin Confession Cycle. Confessing a wrong without action can give one a false sense of having addressed an issue without changing one's conduct. Repeatedly doing so, noted Dale W., actually digs one a deeper existential grave.
Alternatively, repeated admissions followed by failed resolve can promote a paralyzing sense of shame and worthlessness.
Whether deflected by mockery or immobilized by despair, the prospects for personal transformation darken. During these despondent times, said the Baal Shem Tov, our yetzer hara, or "harmful inclination," closes its trap. As Behukotai indicates, the only way out is humbly admitting one feels heartsick due to one's deeds, atoning and then returning to covenantal living through the power of God's love.
Behukotai concludes with instructions on how to determine the monetary value of possessions or persons dedicated to the Holy Temple's service. Why does this section follow the Tochecha? Perhaps a person's true worth may only be determined after they have been brought low, and then penitently dedicate themselves to recovering that which is holy in life.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected].