Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul

May 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | 1 Comment

The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra, Bechukkotai (by my decrees), makes it clear that the covenant between God and the children of Israel is a two-way street.  If you obey all my rules, God says, then I’ll be a good god to you, giving you ample food, peace, and descendants.  If you reject some of my rules, then I’ll reject you, and punish you for several pages.

Reading through the details this year, I noticed the importance of how you translate the Hebrew word nefesh.  The list of rewards under If you go by my decrees (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:3) concludes:

I will place my home (dwelling-place) among you, and my nefesh will not reject you.  I will walk around in your midst, and I will be a god to you, and you will be a people to me.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:11-12)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite; throat; animating soul (what makes humans and animals alive); individual person, personality; mood, emotional life.

The list of results from not going with God’s decrees begins:

And if you reject my decrees, and if your nefesh abhors my laws, [so you are] no longer doing all my commands, voiding my covenant–then I on my part will do this to you: I will appoint panic over you, the consumptive sickness and the fever, using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh; and you will sow your seeds in vain, for your enemies will eat them.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:15-16)

Suppose we focus on the nefesh as the throat, the location of the appetite for physical food.  Robert Alter took this tack when he translated my nefesh will not reject you as  “I shall not loathe you”, and explained that a literal translation would be “my throat will not expel you”, i.e. I will not retch in disgust over you.  Similarly, if your nefesh rejects my laws means “if you retch in disgust over my laws”.

Continuing to translate nefesh as “throat”,  the fever of using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh becomes “inflamed eyes and sore throat”.  These could be either disease symptoms, or a description of a person who has been crying for a long time.

The advantage of viewing nefesh as “throat” is the emotional impact of imagining God retching with disgust, and imagining ourselves sobbing in anguish.  What a motivation for following every one of God’s rules, instead of picking and choosing!

On the other hand, suppose we translate nefesh as the animating soul that gives the body life and desires.  Then my nefesh will not reject you assigns a different anthropomorphic metaphor to God.  It means that if we  go with God’s decrees, God will continue to be alive to us.  God will also desire to make a home with us and walk around in our midst—to be close to us.  (See the translation of Leviticus 26:11-12 above.)

The phrase if your nefesh rejects my laws then means “if you lose your appetite for my laws” and “if you become as if dead to my laws”.  The result of this attitude is that God will fill you with terror and make you sick, and you’ll suffer the fever of using up the eyes and wearing away the nefesh.  This might mean that you will see less and less of the truth, and feel more and more dead inside.

The bottom line in this covenant between God and the Israelites  is that if you want to be alive to God and desire God, you must also be aware of and desire all of God’s decrees, laws, and commandments.  If you reject the divine rules that you don’t like, you lose your connection with God.

This tells me I’d be a lousy Israelite.  There are lots of rules in the Torah that stick in my throat, rules that I have no appetite for, that my soul is dead to.  For example, the technology of animal sacrifice obviously worked for most ancient Israelites, at least until the time of the prophet Isaiah.  But all the rules about animal sacrifices disgust me.  Jewish authorities point out that without a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Jews have no place to make animal sacrifices, so we don’t have to follow the rules about them.  But this rational explanation does not comfort me.  My most visceral soul, my nefesh, still feels outrage at the very thought of killing animals in order to draw closer to God.

Does this mean I can never walk with God?  I hope not.  After all, the rabbis of 2,000 years ago, as quoted in the Talmud, “interpreted” many of the rules in the Torah until they came out quite different.  Also, rabbis since Talmudic times have made their judgments by using the same general standards, but applying them differently according the particulars of each case.

Today, we can’t help but pick and choose which specific rules to follow.  But we can still apply the same general moral standards to each particular situation.  The danger for us is that we might pick and choose when to follow our moral standards.

Suppose one is fair with other people—except when one can’t resist cheating them; or kind to others—except when one does not feel like it.  Then one’s inner vision fails, and one’s nefesh becomes flimsy.  As it says in Leviticus, the spirit of God will no longer walk  or find a home on such a person.

May we all be blessed with the strength and wisdom we need to keep working on ethical behavior.  May each of us develop an appetite (nefesh) for goodness, and sow seeds of kindness everywhere.  Then we will be rewarded with a harvest of aliveness (nefesh), and holiness will dwell with us wherever we walk.

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  1. […] Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul (The nefesh as a throat metaphor.) […]

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