If you follow all the rules, you will be rewarded; if you do not, you will be punished.
This makes sense when the boss is human. But this week’s Torah portion, Bechukkotai (“by my decrees”), claims that the same formula applies when the boss is God.
If you go by my decrees and observe my commands and do them, I will give you rains in their season, and the earth will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-4)
The Torah lists other rewards that God promises, including abundant food, peace and security, victory over enemies, and fertility.
But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your nafshot gag on my laws, so that you are not 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 seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it. (Leviticus 26:14-16)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ), plural nafshot = throat, appetite, embodied soul.
God adds many other punishments for rejecting the rules, including fear, wild beasts, attacking armies, pestilence, famine, and cannibalism. Cities will be ruined, and the Israelites will be scattered in exile.
The problem with this promise of material rewards for following God’s rules, and physical punishments for rejecting God’s rules, is that the world does not work that way. Bad things do happen to good people, as the book of Job points out.
The haftarah reading from the Prophets that always accompanies the Torah portion Bechukkotai takes the reward and punishment formula to a different level. Most scholars agree that this reading from the book of Jeremiah (16:19-17:14) is a collection of seven separate poems. The third poem, Jeremiah 17:5-8, does not talk about obeying God’s decrees and laws; instead, it considers a person’s inner feelings about God.
Thus says God:
Cursed is the man who yivtach in humankind,
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose leiv turns away from God.
He is like a bare tree in the desert
That does not notice any good coming.
He dwells in a stone-field in the wilderness,
A salt-plain that is not inhabited. (Jeremiah/Yermiyahu 17:5-6)
yivtach (יִבְטַח) = trusts, feels safe, is confident.
leiv (לֵב) = heart; inner self, the seat of thoughts and feelings; attention, inclination.
Here, the curse falls on those whose thoughts and feelings reject God. They become bitter atheists, trusting only human power. Their punishment is that they become depressed and unable to see anything good; their souls become undernourished, deficient in the water of life; and they feel abandoned.
The blessing comes to those who maintain their attachment to God.
Blessed is the man who yivtach in God;
God will happen from his trust. (Jeremiah 17:7)
Perhaps Jeremiah is saying that God happens to people when they trust in God. The poem goes on to describe the man who trusts in God:
He is like a tree planted beside water
That sends out its roots beside a stream,
And does not notice any heat coming.
Upon it are fresh green leaves,
And in a year of drought it is not worried;
It does not stop bearing fruit. (Jeremiah 17:8)
Those who depend on God rather than humans for their sense of security are rewarded, Jeremiah says. They do not worry about anything bad approaching, because their souls are nourished by a water of life that never runs out. Therefore, their efforts and projects continue to bear fruit.
Jeremiah’s poem can be read as stating a psychological truth: trusting in God nourishes your heart and mind; abandoning all hope of God leads to sterile depression. Even if following God’s rules in your actions in the world does not necessarily bring a worldly reward, there are still rewards and punishments for your attitude toward God—and they are internal.
Is Jeremiah’s claim true for us today?
My first impulse is to say no. I know some happy atheists who believe that humans are basically good, despite the evil some people do, and that there is hope for a better world. They find satisfaction in the company of other human beings, and they do good work to improve the world.
I also know some religious people who claim that they trust God and know that God will make everything will work out for the best—but they say it either with the glazed smile of self-hypnosis, or with an edge of desperation.
On the other hand, now that I am 60 years old, I am beginning to taste the pleasures of acceptance. I no longer speculate on whether humans are destroying the world; I no longer assume the people I love will still be with me in my old age. Neither do I place my trust in the anthropomorphic God described in the Torah, since I cannot believe in a god who makes plans and decisions like a human being.
But I think that sometimes God happens to me. I see or hear something beautiful, and my heart lifts, and I am filled with joy and gratitude—and a sense of security, if not trust, in being part of the big picture. In a year of trouble I still worry—but not as much as I used to. Perhaps I finally have a few roots in the stream of the divine.
May God happen to everyone who needs it. And may all our souls be nourished, so we can continue to produce fruit.