This week’s portion Parsha Bechukotai, mentions the Tochecha, a series of Brachot and Klalot (Blessing and Curses). Blessings, if we follow the Mitzvot (Commandments) and Curses for violating the Mitzvot (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:14-43). For many of us, this type of Schar and Onesh (reward and punishment) theology is very hard to accept. How can it be that God would punish people for failing to fulfill a Mitzvah?
In Parshat Behukotai, God is very clear, outlining specifically what must be done to receive the reward and what would earn a punishment. However, there are times where a Jewish text explains a tragedy in a theological way after the fact. For example, the incident that I cited last week: a plague killed the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva because, according to the Talmud in Yevamot 62b, they were not carful in the Mitzvah of “Vehavtah lereycha et kamocha”, “loving your neighbor as you love yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). To reiterate what I said last week, the Talmud is sharing something powerful here, no matter how one looks at the issue of reward and punishment. Not showing love for one another, failing to see the value in each other in spite of our disagreement, is a plague, a disease. It is a threat from within that has far greater potential to destroy us than any threat from the outside.
However, while this is a meaningful way to look at this text, it is still hard to accept the idea that God would kill 24,000 people because they were not following a Mitzvah. In addition, how does the Talmud know this? How could the Rabbis of the Talmud be so sure that there is a correlation between these two events?
If we ask this question about the Rabbis of the Talmud, then we must ask this question all the more of people in modern times who seem to feel that they are privy to the will of God. I remember a town in Israel called Ma’a lot, where at the Netiv Meir elementary school on May 15 1974, 25 people, including 22 children, were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Not long after this event, someone discovered that 25 Mezuzot in the school were Pasul (invalid) and announced that this is the reason this tragedy occurred. Besides the astounding lack of sensitivity this showed to the relatives of the victims of this horrific attack, how could anyone display such arrogance to God? How could they possibly know and understand the will of the divine?
Why did anyone even think to check the Mezuzot after the attack? The Talmud in Brachot 5a explains that when a tragedy occurs, we should look within and examine ourselves spiritually and morally. This includes examining our observance of Mitzvot. In that context the checking of the Mezuzot was part of this looking within. However, this internal spiritual inventory does not mean that we will arrive at an absolute conclusion of what made this—or any—tragedy occur. The only definite experience that we can walk away from is that reflecting on tragedy will in some way transform us as people, not that we can ever understand why these tragedies occur.
True we do have ancient texts which do give us absolute conclusions of what made a given tragedy occur. However, we do have to acknowledge the vast difference between being a person living in our world vs. a person living in the ancient world. Imagine living in a world where weather, the movement of stars and changes in the earth were utter mysteries. Without science to understand these phenomena, it makes sense that humans would look to theology for answers. However, I think that the same way many scientific phenomena were a mystery to the ancient world, understanding the will of God was and still remains even more of a mystery. Therefore, rather than search for oversimplified or absolute answers to what is inexplicable, let us instead strive to be both compassionate and introspective, seeking in times of tragedy to transform both ourselves and the world.
This week’s title comes from the song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus. It was written for singer/pianist Nina Simone. She first recorded it in 1964. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has been recorded and performed by many artists. The most famous version of the song is the 1965 blues rock version recorded by The Animals. The song is about a person trying to explain how they feel about someone they love. The chorus goes “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”. This line sums up what many of us are trying to say to God. However, on a certain level it is what God is “trying” to say to us. While, I do not know for sure, I imagine that God “cannot stand” when people explain tragedy as divine retribution. To me, this is the greatest example of God being misunderstood.