Blessings and curses, carrots and sticks: What’s the spiritual message?

By Rabbi Ari Shachar

This week’s double Torah Portion, Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34) contains a listing of the blessings that will be granted to the Israelites for following God’s commandments: rain in the proper seasons, and abundance and peace in the Promised Land along with God’s abiding presence.  Sounds lovely!  However, we are then admonished that if we do not observe God’s commandments we will be cursed with all manner of ailments, overrun by our enemies, experience famine and drought, and finally be exiled from the land.

For some readers, this Torah portion raises serious questions about the nature of The Divine and the relevance of our sacred text to modern life.   As a spiritual director, I often meet with individuals – both Jews and Gentiles – who struggle to connect with a God who seems concerned with reward and punishment.  They also struggle to  find meaning in texts that frame teachings in ancient language and metaphor.   What is God really asking of us?  Are we to believe that observing commandments such as keeping kosher, allowing the land to rest from planting every seventh year, and observing Shabbat will directly result in the aforementioned blessings – and if we fail to do so, will we similarly be cursed?  Or do we hear these words as the ancient carrots and sticks held over our ancestors, but which have little meaning for us today?

One way to derive contemporary meaning is from the wisdom of the Talmudic rabbis, who distinguished between two motivations for observing mitzvot /divine commandments: doing something lishmah/for its own sake, and doing something shelo lishmah/for ulterior motives.   We can more readily understand doing something that has an obvious benefit to us; for example, we go to work and provide a service in order to earn pay so that we can buy what we need or want.  If we do not perform as expected, we may be out of a job.  This is doing something “shelo lishmah,” that is, because it serves us personally.  

On the other hand, doing something “lishmah,” is to do something for its own sake, with no obvious benefit.   A mitzvah that serves no rational purpose, such as keeping kosher, holds no obvious benefit for us.  What reason could there be for not eating certain foods, like shellfish, or mixing meat and dairy in the same meal?  The command to not commit murder makes sense for maintaining law and order in society.  But what about observing Shabbat?  Limiting the number of days we work decreases our income, and therefore what we can purchase.  We humans prefer to have a reason for doing something if it is not inherently pleasurable.  Of course we could say that we should do something simply “because God said so,” and for some this is a perfectly sufficient reason.   But for others, this is not a sufficiently satisfying reason for observing commandments.  So, what is?

Perhaps the real point of observing the mitzvot is about connecting us to the deeper truths found in Torah.  Perhaps it is about developing a spiritual practice that changes us for the better in ways we could not anticipate from the outset.  By delaying our gratification, or by consciously choosing to do something that is counterintuitive or not self-serving, we begin to live more consciously and more in connection with others.  Saying a blessing before we eat delays our gratification, but it also acknowledge the gift of having food to eat when many do not.  Limiting the variety of what we eat helps us to consume food more consciously.   Observing Shabbat as a day of rest creates a space in time for connecting with our loved ones, God, and the natural world. Giving tzedekah takes money from our own pockets and gives it to those who are in greater need.  By embracing mitzvot as spiritual practices, we actually do reap the benefits of doing something lishmah – for its own sake – because it deepens the conscious awareness with which we are living on this planet.   The real rewards are realized in our relationships with others and in the wider world.  

And there certainly are negative consequences if we ignore commandments such as treating our fellow human beings as we would like to be treated (ahavta re’echa kamocha), or being shomrei adamah/partners with God in caring for the earth.  We all suffer the consequences of war, feeling distant and disconnected from others, the effects of global warming and the disappearance of natural resources.  These “curses” are a direct result of living as if our own interests are the only ones that matter.  

All sacred texts – the Torah, The New Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, The Qu’ran – contain eternal, essential Truths.   Each provides a framework for living in consonance with these Truths.  The Torah provides a Jewish framework and Jewish language for the Truths of how we are to live consciously with respect and concern for one another and for our planet.  We can choose to regard the Torah as an archaic text with questionable relevance to 21st century life, or as a sacred text that asks us to develop our spiritual nature and recognize all beings as b’tzelem Elohim/ made in the image of God.   My prayer is that we will all choose this path of blessings.  Shabbat Shalom!