This portion is in essence a list of punishments, or perhaps consequences, if the Jewish People chose not to keep Torah.
Nowadays, the idea of punishment to get people to change has gone out of fashion; understandably so. People might change superficially if you force them to do something. But the change will not be genuine, meaningful, or lasting. So, if God wants superficially compliant, but deep down sceptical, even resentful, ‘servants’, then fear of punishment is likely the way to go. But personally, I don’t believe that’s what God wants from human beings.
So, what’s this portion all about then?
I’ve mentioned before that when I was a very young boy, I was in a restaurant with my late father a”h. I noticed octopus on the menu and said that it sounded disgusting. My father responded how could I know it was disgusting if I had never tasted it? I answered how could octopus be anything other than disgusting… wrong answer. He ordered me the dish and insisted that I at least try it. I tasted the first bit, ran outside and threw up in the street. Thus proving my point that octopus was disgusting!
Kosher issues aside, I agree with my father in principle. When I was seventeen, I drank three quarters of a bottle of cheap whisky and was throwing up for forty-eight hours. For fifteen years, just the smell of whisky would make me retch. Or so I thought. A good friend of mine encouraged me to try again in my thirties. He insisted that I smell some whisky. Lo and behold, I didn’t retch as I was certain I would. I tried a sip and it didn’t taste as bad as I expected. Slowly but surely (for better or for worse!), I found my way back to drinking whisky and it has now become a great pleasure for me. It took a lot for my friend to get me to try it – and he was persistent. But once I did, I found a new joy in life.
There is a principle at play here. We human beings do not always know what’s best for us until we have tried it out. But since we are conditioned and make assumptions, we often are unwilling to try. So how do we get ourselves to try something new when we are convinced that we don’t want to?
I think this is Torah’s point. On the surface, being good doesn’t always look worth it. It usually doesn’t bring immediate gratification. And so, left to their own devices, people will not always do so. But create consequences and you should at least get people to try it out. And the theory is that once they have tried out being good on a consistent basis, they will see that they enjoy it a lot more than following every base desire that comes their way. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I believe there is a solid logic in it. The concept in Judaism is called lo lishma ba lishma. A person who does something for the wrong reasons, will eventually come to doing so for the right ones. There is, of course, much more to be said about this.
There will always be octopus situations – whereby people are so convinced they cannot enjoy doing the right thing that they will be resentful no matter what. But, on the whole, setting up a structure to insist that people taste the pleasure of goodness might well ensure that more people end up seeing its value in the long run.
Parsha in a Nutshell
The Torah portion talks firstly of the good that will befall the Jewish people if they live up to their billing of being a light to the nations and then it talks about what will happen if not. Unfortunately, the latter part of the portion is much more the story of Jewish history than the former.