The Burned Hand
Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
This week’s Torah Portion contains the Tocheche or The Rebuke, “a lengthy description of the terrible punishments awaiting the nation, if they do not follow the Torah.” (Torah.org)
Unfortunately for the Jewish people, the punishments described go well beyond weeding the garden bed or being grounded. Observe:
“If you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant…
then I too, will do the same to you; I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression. You will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it…
Your enemies will rule over you; you will flee, but no one will be pursuing you…
I will break the pride of your strength…
I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you…
You will eat, yet not be satisfied.” (Leviticus 26:15 – 26:26)
Pretty grim stuff. But then, suddenly, at the end of the section, the mood is lightened, and we are told:
“But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God…
I will remember for them the covenant [made with] the ancestors, whom I took out from the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be a God to them. I am the Lord.” (Lev. 26:44 – 26:45)
Why does the Portion scare us with verse after verse of potentially calamitous punishments, only to assure us that we will never been entirely abandoned, destroyed, or despaired simply because we are the descendants of Abraham and Moses?
The sages—via Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum—offer two answers. The first says that the concluding assurance is meant to dull the effect of the news and calm our nerves. This seems reasonable; I’ve been scared by mere mortals (namely my high school baseball coach, my seventh grade baseball coach, and one or two teachers); I would probably manage even worse if subjected to a holy chastisement.
The other reasoning suggests that by evoking the names of our great ancestors, we will be motivated to attain a higher level of spirituality and morality. Surely the Jewish people want to live up to the names of Moses and Abraham.
I’ve also felt the effects of this phenomenon. I try hard—but to little effect—to emulate the successful people in my family.
But this “emulation factor” pales in comparison to the motivational thrust of the more readily apparent mechanism in the Portion: fear.
It’s said that “the burned hand [or the possibility of a burnt hand] is the best teacher.” Witness the character of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series. Ron desperately seeks to match the accomplishments of his brothers, but when left to his own devices, he prefers games of Gobstones and Chess over studying or Quidditch training. It’s not until threatened with something like a detention from Professor Snape that he churns out his essay on Werewolves (Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban). Similarly, countless movies have featured a protagonist in fear of his life performing otherwise impossible feats.
But the “fear factor” has descended to far more mundane matters. Certain voluntary websites now automatically deduct money from your credit card if you fail to meet your goal of wait loss or writing your first book chapter?
Why are the sages reluctant to embrace this forthcoming motivational mechanism of the Torah Portion? Most likely because the notion that God has to coerce us into good behavior is unsavory on two levels, 1) because threats and other “sticks” are frowned upon in today’s culture, and 2) it seems absurd that God should have to descend to something so commonplace to motivate us.
But there are threats and there are threats, and given the conciliatory last lines of the Tocheche, God’s threat is of the “tough love” variety. He recognizes that we humans respond effectively to fear, and so he utilizes it. But by reiterating his love for us, the threat can be seen as “for our own good,” and therefore doesn’t warp our relationship. It’s the same way that a Dad might tell his son that if he doesn’t study, doesn’t show up to class, and fails out, then he will have to bring a hundred plagues down on the son’s head (no car, no video games, no allowance, no t.v., no cell phone, etc.) But to maintain a healthy relationship, the Dad reminds his son that he loves him; he just wants to see the continued success of the family.
Having just sat through a rather unproductive Friday afternoon, I appreciate the effectiveness of the occasional deadline, threat, or other instigator of fear as motivation. But threats should be made the right way, the way that God made his—they should be coupled with the reminder that the end goal is not simply to produce fear, but to make progress.