The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, Bechukotai, opens with God’s conditional promise that if we follow the mitzvot, we will reap abundant reward. After a description of the bounty God bestows upon the righteous, the portion then turns to the punishments that will afflict those who do not heed God’s words: “If you fail to obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory. . . Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their food. . .” (Lev 26:18-20). The catalog of curses in this list far exceeds the aforementioned blessings, in both number and intensity; it even speaks of parents forced to eat the flesh of their own offspring.
What do we make of this theology of reward and punishment? There are a couple things to note before dismissing this perspective outright. First, throughout the portion, the Torah speaks communally, to the Jewish people as a whole rather than to individuals. Responsibility is collective here: if the society as a whole is just, it will prosper, and if it is oppressive it will not stand—but within that society, certain virtuous men and women may still suffer, and others, who are malevolent, may thrive nonetheless. There is no promise that if I, as an individual, lead a moral life, I will be blessed with health and prosperity. Furthermore, this doctrine of reward and punishment only works in one direction. Even if one accepts the notion that good is rewarded and wrong-doing is punished, that does not mean that all suffering is punishment for wrong-doing. This is the failing of Job’s friends, who falsely—and arrogantly—assume that Job must have committed a sin to incur God’s wrath.
Still, even with these caveats, many of us—myself included—find it difficult to accept a theology of Divine reward and punishment, even on the national level. Such a worldview fails to align with the reality we see, day in and day out. I believe that no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, sometimes the world is just not fair.
And yet I still find wisdom in this week’s portion, because on an important level, environmentally-speaking, it communicates a core truth. We now know that the land and the weather do respond to our communal moral choices. The relationship is complex, and does not follow a simple equation of reward and punishment meted out by a supernatural God, but it is the way of the world. When we act responsibly, we are more likely to continue to enjoy the blessings of land and air and water. When we abuse our power over the rest of God’s creation, we are likely to incur environmental degradation, with sometimes-dire consequences.
Collectively-speaking, good behavior does indeed offer benefits and irresponsibility surely carries a steep cost.
This week, try to be extra-conscience about the way that you and your household live on the earth. What actions of yours constitute a blessing? A curse?
For Randy Newman's funny and insightful take on the world's fairness, or lack thereof, see: