Reward and punishment sound simple at the end of the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra. If you obey all my rules, God says in the last Torah portion, Bechukotai (“by my decrees”), then I will give you ample food, peace, and descendants. If you reject any of my rules, then I will reject you, and punish you for several pages.
If you go by my decrees and you observe my commands and perform them, then I will give the rains in their season, and I will give the land her produce, and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-4)
The list of rewards concludes:
And I will put my dwelling-place among you, and my nefesh will not reject you. I will walk around in your midst, and I will be your god, and you will be my people. (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:11-12)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat; animating soul (what makes humans and animals alive).
The promise of God living among the people and being their god is the culmination of the rewards that result from keeping the covenant with God.
The list of results from not going by God’s decrees begins:
But if you do not listen to me, and you do not do all these commands, and if your nefesh loathes my laws, preventing you from doing any of my commands, making you break out of my covenant—[then] I will even do this to you: I will appoint panic over you, consumption, and fever, using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh. And you will sow your seeds in vain, and your enemies will eat them. (Leviticus 26:14-16)
The list of punishments concludes:
You will be lost in the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you. And those who remain will rot away in their depravity in the lands of their enemies, and even in the depravity of their forefathers remaining in them. Then they will confess their depravity and the depravity of their fathers, that they walked against me with hostility. When I have been hostile to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies, that is when their uncircumcised heart will humble itself, and that is when they will gain appeasement for their depravity. (Leviticus 26:38-41)
Only then, after they have fully recognized and admitted their horrible deeds, baring their hearts, will God renew the covenant with the remaining Israelites and bring them back to their former land.
Nefesh as throat
Suppose we translate 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.1 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. How can we remain hostile to a God who is so emotionally involved that God finds our bad behavior nauseating? How can we live with the suffering of our own nefesh?
Nefesh as animating soul
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 follow God’s decrees, God will desire to make a home with us and walk around in our midst—to be close to us. (See my translation of Leviticus 26:11-12 above.)
Then God will continue to be alive to us.
If humans suffer from “the fever of using up the eyes and wearing away the nefesh“ their alienation from God is making them 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 many 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 cannot help but pick and choose which specific rules to follow. But we can still apply the same general moral standards to each particular situation.
Suppose you are fair with other people—except when you cannot resist cheating them. Or kind to others—except when you does not feel like it. Then your inner vision fails, and your nefesh becomes flimsy. As it says in Leviticus, the spirit of God will no longer walk or find a home with 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.
(For the past week I have suffered from nausea, lightheadedness, and other odd physical symptoms. I do not believe the cause is hostility toward God, and I hope to get a medical diagnosis soon. Meanwhile, my ability to write has slowed down, so please bear with me this month.)
- Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 661.