Why should anyone follow the commandments, the mitzvot? They’re out dated and strange.
God tells the Hebrews that if they do not follow the commandments, He 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…You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters” (Lev. 26:16-29).
Eating your own children? That sounds like a good enough reason to me!
Of course, there is always a positive side to life. Should the Hebrews choose to remain true to God, their reward is an abundant harvest and safety from their enemies.
If we look at Parshat Bechukotai and read it plainly, then there’s no need to question why the world operates the way it does. Good things happen to the faithful and bad things happen to the unfaithful.
Yet, the world doesn’t seem to operate this way. Suffering happens to all people, regardless of how good they are or what their level of Jewish practice is. Does this mean that the Torah is wrong? Absolutely not!
The Torah has layers of meaning. And it’s my belief in this week’s portion that we’re meant to read this as a psychology book, not a theology book. Instead of reading Parshat Bechukotai and seeing an angry, Zeus-like God in the sky throwing down bolts of lightning, we should turn inward and see how the rewards and punishments described in the Torah reflect something that is deeply connected to personal happiness.
If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give you..
If you…do not perform all these commandments…I will [give you]…
- Hopeless longing and depression
- Breaking of your pride
- No satisfaction
What God is talking about here is not something physical like grapes, winning wars and making babies, but something that is deeply psychological! Not following God, it seems, takes us out of a rhythm of life and puts us into a place where we are never satisfied and struggling just to get by emotionally.
This might sound over the top, but consider the recent work that has been done in Positive Psychology. Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, an Israeli and popular professor at Harvard, has suggested in lectures that the rituals and teachings of Judaism are directly related to discoveries he has made in what truly makes people happy. His research unlocked something in the scientific community that Judaism has taught for thousands of years: it does not matter how much money or success we have, what really matters is our connection to community, family, a sense of purpose and reason to life. These are the values of Judaism and what the mitzvot are all about.
So although it’s easy to throw away the commandments as outdated folkways, consider that it’s these “silly rules” that may lead you to the kind of happiness you’ve always wanted.