Jeremiah & Psalm 139: Mind Versus Conscience

Jeremiah offers an insight on human psychology in the haftarah reading that accompanies the Torah portion Bechukotai in Leviticus this week. The haftarah (Jeremiah 16:19-17:14) warms up with one of Jeremiah’s predictions that the kingdom of Judah will be lost because its people lack trust in God and persist in worshiping idols. (Jeremiah lived through the Babylonian conquest of Judah and their siege and destruction of Jerusalem.)

Jeremiah adds that the people of Judah should not expect their own military power to save them.

            Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind,

                        And makes human flesh his strength. (Jeremiah 17:5)

In other words, you cannot win a war with armies alone. Jeremiah goes on to say that only those who trust in God will flourish. (See my post Haftarat Bechukotai–Jeremiah: Trust Me.) Then he touches on another problem about trusting human beings. His two-verse gem on human psychology is rich in words that can be translated as either physical objects or psychological states. So I made three translations. The first one leaves the metaphors in the original Hebrew:

The leiv (לֵב) is more akov (עָקֺב) than anything,

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a leiv,

                        Testing the kelayot (כְּלָיוֹת),

And allotting to a man according to his drachim (דְּרָכִים),

                        According to the peri (פְּרִי) of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Next I translate the ambiguous words literally:

The heart is more a heel than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a heart,

                        Testing the kidneys,

And allotting to a man according to his roads,

                        According to the fruit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Finally, here is a version with all the ambiguous words translated metaphorically:

The mind is more devious than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a mind,

                        Examining the conscience,

And allotting to a man according to his conduct,

                        According to the result of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Heart and Kidneys

In English, the heart is the metaphorical location of feelings, while the brain is the location of thoughts. In the Hebrew Bible, the heart is the seat of both feeling and thinking. The word for “heart” (leiv or levav) is used for the whole conscious mind—except for one mental function: our conscience. The awareness of what we ought to do is assigned to the kidneys in the bible. (See my post: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.) Kidneys are often paired with hearts because, according to one commentary:

“The kidneys advise the heart, and the heart decides.”1

If we are accustomed to following our “kidneys” (conscience), our decision-making is straightforward; we reject thoughts of gratifying our immoral impulses, choose the course of action God would approve of, and do it. But if we do not listen for the voice of our conscience, its advice is drowned out by conflicting desires, our “hearts” (minds) make less virtuous decisions, and we reflexively invent devious rationalizations for them.

“Who can understand it?” indicates that people cannot fully understand even their own minds, nor the minds of their fellow human beings. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology and understand everything inside, heart and kidneys.

Jeremiah: Examine me and my enemies

Biblical characters who believe they are virtuous, and their enemies are not, welcome God’s investigation of human minds. In two other poetic passages in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet urges God to examine and punish his enemies. Before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah reports that God told him idolaters from his hometown, Anatot, were scheming to kill him in order to stop his prophesies.

            Then God let me know, and I knew.

                        That was when you let me see their deeds.

            And I was like a docile lamb who was brought to slaughter,

                        And I did not know that they had plotted plots against me …

            So God of Hosts, righteous judge,

                        Who examines kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 11:18-20)

In a passage after this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah is released from prison in Jerusalem but cannot stop speaking God’s prophecies, even though the city is full of informers. He uses similar language about these Jerusalemites:

            So God of Hosts, righteous examiner,

                        Who sees kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 20:12) 

Psalm 139: Improve my thoughts

Psalm 139 begins:

            God, you investigate me and you know me.

                        You know when I sit down or get up.

                        You see my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:1-2)

The psalmist marvels at everything God knows about a person, concluding:

            Knowledge is too extraordinary for me;

                        It is too high; I am not capable of it. (Psalm 139:6)

The next verse is:

            Where could I go from your spirit?

                        And where could I disappear from your presence? (Psalm 139: 7)      

The 19th-century commentator S.R. Hirsch elaborated on these two questions, filling in the context: “Where could I go to escape Your ‘spirit’ so that it might not move me, stir me, fill my heart and summon my conscience before Your judgment seat? And whither could I flee from Your ‘countenance’ where You would not see me, where Your rule would not touch me?”2

In other words, God is not an abstract omniscient deity to the psalmist; they feel God’s spirit move through their mind, move their own spirit, and summon their own conscience—which then reminds the mind of God’s judgment.

The next five verses expand on how there is no place to hide from God. The psalmist then explains:

            Because you yourself produced my kidneys (conscience);

                        You wove me together in my mother’s belly.  (Psalm 139:13)

After realizing the intimate relationship between the inner conscience and the judgement of God, the psalmist concludes by asking for God’s evaluation:

            Search me, God, and know my heart (mind);

                        Examine me and know my thoughts,

            And see if a distressing road (line of conduct) is in me;

                        Then lead me on an everlasting road (line of conduct)! (Psalm 139:23-24)

The conscience has won.

The human mind is devious, Jeremiah says in this week’s haftarah. When we become accustomed to avoiding the advice of our conscience, our excuses and self-deception become pathological. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology, see through the deception, and deal justice to evildoers.

The writer of Psalm 139 finds God’s attention to the human mind uncomfortably invasive at first, but then welcomes God’s correction through one’s innate conscience. It is better to give up transitory secret pleasures, the psalmist concludes, in order to lead a life dedicated to doing the right things.

Some people succumb to immoral impulses frequently, and deceive themselves as well as others about their motivations. As Jeremiah says, the human mind is naturally devious. But as Psalm 139 says, humans are born with a conscience.3 It is up to us to decide how much to listen to it, and how much to reject it and rationalize our decisions.

  1. Midrash Tehillim (a collection of commentary on the Psalms completed by the 11th century C.E.), Psalm 14:1 on Jeremiah 17:10.
  2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014 (original German edition 1882), p. 1107.
  3. Except, perhaps, for the small percentage of humans who are sociopathic or psychopathic. It is still a matter of debate whether someone with a weak or nonexistent conscience is born that way, or becomes that way through certain kinds of early childhood trauma.

Bechukotai & Jeremiah: Carrots and Sticks

Oranges on a Branch, by Winslow Homer 19th cent.

If you follow my decrees and you observe my commands and do them, then I will give your rains in their season, and the land will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit.  (Leviticus 26:3-4)

So God’s list of rewards begins in the Torah portion Bechukotai, the last in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and continues with blessings of ample food, safety, victory in battle with foreigners, fertility, and so on. All of them are about material life in this world, except possibly for the last:

And I will set my mishkan among you, and my soul will not gag over you. And I will walk around among you, and I will be a god for you, and you will be my people. (Leviticus 26:11-12)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place; sanctuary built for God.

The word mishkan usually refers to a physical place of worship. But it could also refer to God dwelling in the hearts of the Israelites. Walking around and being a god could mean God’s appearances as a pillar of cloud and fire and God’s visible miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But it could also mean the presence of God that the Israelites feel in their hearts.

A list of punishments follows, beginning:

But if you reject my decrees, and if your soul gags over my laws, so that you do not do all my commands, violating my covenant, I for my part will do this to you: I will assign terror over you, the consumption and the fever … (Leviticus 26:15-16)

There are more curses than blessings, in an escalating series of material, physical disasters. Each round of curses is threatened if the people continue to disobey and reject God. The fifth and final round of curses begins with cannibalism due to starvation, and ends:

And you will perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you.  (Leviticus 26:38)

A similar list of carrots and sticks, blessings and curses, appears in Deuteronomy/Devarim 28:1-68, in the portion Ki Tavo. These all concern material life in this world.

I always read these lists grimly, since I know that life is more complicated than behaving well to get ice cream from Daddy—er, God. Bad things do happen to good people, even to obedient religious people, as the book of Job illustrates.

How can we reconcile the lists in Bechukotai with reality?

Collective instead of personal carrots

This week’s portion, Bechukotai, uses the second person plural, so one could argue that although individuals are not rewarded and punished as promised, the Israelite people as a whole are. (Judging by what happened over the centuries to the Israelites, and to the Jews after them, the people must have been extraordinarily dedicated to disobeying God.)

But this explanation falls apart in Ki Tavo, the similar portion in Deuteronomy, where the rewards and punishments are expressed in the second person singular, making them personal.

by Elisa Champin, 19th cent.

Carrots after death

Bechukotai and Ki Tavo frustrate commentators who believe that the real rewards and punishments come after death. 15th-century commentator Abravanel asked: “Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things, as mentioned in his comment, and omit spiritual perfection and the reward of the soul after death—the true and ultimate goal of man? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgement in the afterlife.”1

In fact, the idea that souls survive death did not appear in Jewish writings until the book of Daniel, written in the second century B.C.E., well after Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Before Daniel, the Hebrew Bible assumed that when the body died, the soul went to a shadowy, perhaps metaphorical, underground realm called Sheol where they were unconscious. No rewards or punishments were possible for souls after death.

Inner carrots

The two Torah portions also frustrate those who, like me, believe that doing the right thing leads to psychological rather than material rewards. Good people feel inner satisfaction; in biblical terminology, they walk with God. Bad people, on the other hand, are chronically dissatisfied.

The final blessing in Bechukotai, in which God says “I will walk around among you,” was some consolation to the 15th-century author of Akedat Yitzchak, who valued communion with God:

“Indeed, the spiritual bliss whose source is the Torah and the reward of the Divine commandments, are more than amply recorded in the frequent accounts throughout the Torah of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) resting in our midst and in the ongoing communion with the Divine thus attained by us … How could the critics fail to perceive the intensity of the Divine communion and the spiritual wealth attained by members of our nation while still dwelling in this ephemeral world …”2

In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, the result of a course of action is sometimes called its “fruit”.3 So when I looked for metaphors among the carrots and sticks in Bechukotai, I noticed fruit trees. The first blessing with which God rewards the obedient in this week’s Torah portion includes: … the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:4)

The second curse includes: … your power will be poured out in vain, and your land will not give its produce, and the trees of the land will not give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:19-20)

In Bechukotai the presence or absence of fruit seems literal.

Trees flourishing and barren also appear in the hafatarah reading from the book of Jeremiah that accompanies this Torah portion.

Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind

And makes flesh his strength;

He turns away his mind from God.

He is like a bare tree in the desert valley … (Jeremiah 17:5)

Blessed is the man who trusts in God …

He is like a tree planted by water …

In a year without rain lo yidag,

And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

lo yidag (לֺא יִדְאָג) = it does not worry, it is not anxious, it does not feel dread. (Lo = not. Yidag is comes from the same root as dagah, דְּאָגָה = anxiety.)

Jeremiah takes a more sophisticated position, using fruit trees as metaphors for human beings and shifting the focus from obeying God to trusting God.4

Bechukotai’s promise that one reward for religious observance is that God will “walk around among you” may or may not mean that following God’s rules yields an inner reward. Jeremiah’s reframing, in which the reward for trusting God is a fruitful life without anxiety, comes closer to promising an inner reward. But is there a more definite biblical support for the idea that the reward for ethical behavior is inside us?

Next week I will look at the evidence in Psalm 73.

  1. 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 572.
  2. 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, Akedat Yitzchak, Sha’ar 70, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, ibid., pp. 575-576.
  3. Especially in Psalms and Proverbs: Psalms 58:11, 92:13-14, 104:13; Proverbs 1:31, 8:18-20, 11:30, 12:14, 13:2, 18:20-21, 31:31.
  4. See my posts Haftarat Bechukotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me and Bechukotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.


Re-eih & Bechukotai: Two Kinds of Blessings

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Jordan River

Moses opens this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), by giving a choice to the Israelites who are camped at the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into Canaan.

See, I am setting before you today a brakhah and a kelalah. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:26)

brakhah (בְּרָכָה) = blessing.  (Plural: brakhot, בְּרָכוֹתIn the Torah humans are considered “blessed” by God when they have prosperity, good health, fertility, victory over enemies, and/or power over subordinates.)

kelalah (קִלָלָה) = curse.  (This word for “curse” implies that the curse diminishes, belittles, or demeans the recipient.)

What do the people need to do to get the brakhah instead of the kelalah?  Pay attention to God’s rules and refrain from worshiping other gods.

The brakhah: that you pay attention to the commands of God, your god, that I am commanding you today. And the kelalah: if you do not pay attention to the commands of  God, your god, and you turn away from the path that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:27-28)

Moses does not say what good things will happen if the Israelites choose the blessing, nor what bad things will happen if they choose the curse.  Instead he prescribes a ritual:

Mt. Gezerim left, Mt. Eyval right, part of Nablus today, photo by James C. Martin

And it will be when God, your God, brings you to the land that you are entering to possess, you must give the brakhah on Mount Gezirim and the kelalah on Mount Evyal.  (Deuteronomy 11:29)

He gives the location of the two hills,1 but he does not say what the people are to recite.2  Then he delivers a long list of laws about religious observance, beginning with a command to destroy the idols and shrines of the Canaanites.3 The implication is that if the Israelites obey these religious laws they will be blessed, and if they disobey they will be cursed.

Consequences of the Choice in Bechukotai

The Israelites are given a similar choice in Leviticus, in the Torah portion Bechukotai (“In my decrees”), when God declares:

If you walk in my decrees and you observe my commands and carry them out, then I will give you rains in their seasons, and the earth will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit.  And threshing will overlap vintage for you, and vintage will overlap sowing. And you will eat your food until you are sated, and you will dwell in safety in your land.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-5)

The passage continues by listing more blessings that will ensue if the Israelites obey God including the absence of dangerous wild beasts and human enemies in the land, victory in battle abroad, fertility and population increase, and the presence of God’s dwelling-place.  Although God does not use the word brakhah, all of these benefits are standard blessings except for:

I will set my dwelling-place in your midst, and I will not vomit you out.  And I will walk around in your midst, and I will be your God, and you will be my people.  (Leviticus 26:11-12)

Tent of Meeting, Collectie Nederland

The dwelling-place of God is the Tent of Meeting in Exodus through Joshua, and the temple in Jerusalem from 1 Kings on.  But the promise to walk around among the Israelites implies God will constantly be present.

After the blessings, God lists curses.

But if you do not pay attention to me and you do not follow all these commands … I for my part will do this to you: I will appoint terror over you, tuberculosis, and fever, wearing out eyes and wearing away vitality, and you will sow seed for nothing; your enemies will eat it.  I will set my face against you and you will be beaten by your enemies, and those who hate you will rule over you … (Leviticus 26:14, 16-17)

Although God does not use one of the words for “curse” here, the usual curses in the Torah also focus on sickness, famine, and subjugation to enemies.

In the portion Bechukotai God says that if, after these disasters, the Israelites still disobey God, there will be a severe drought.  If the drought is not enough to make the people obedient, God will afflict them with wild beasts that kill children and livestock, starvation, subjugation, panic, and deportation to enemy nations.4

Both the blessings and the curses in Bechukotai are introduced by the word “if” (im, אִם).  If the Israelites obey God, then they will be collectively rewarded with prosperity, fertility, safety, and God’s sanctuary.  If they do not obey God, then they will be collectively punished with starvation, sickness, danger, and exile.

These blessings and curses apply to the Israelites as a whole; the word I translate above as “you” is consistently in the plural.  Individual exceptions are not addressed.  And, as usual in the Torah, no reference is made to any reward or punishment after death.  People experience blessings and curses only during their lives.

Consequences of the Choice in Re-eih

Moses may have similar blessings and curses in mind in this week’s portion, Re-eih.  But some commentators have noticed that in Re-eih the statement about the brakhah uses the word “asher” in place of the usual word “im” (if).

The brakhah: asher you pay attention to the commands of God, your god, that I am commanding you today.  And the kelalah: im you do not pay attention to the commands of  God, your God …  (Deuteronomy 11:27-28)

asher (אֲשֶׁר) = that.

The implication might be that paying attention to God’s rules is in itself a blessing.  If so, this is a new kind of blessing, absent from the choice between blessings and curses in Bechukotai.5

An 18th-century C.E. commentary called Or HaChayim explained: “Hearkening to G’d’s commandments is perceived as a pleasurable experience by itself.  It helps the soul to feel ‘alive’ …  Whenever someone who studies Torah gains an understanding of what the Torah has in mind he experiences a physical and spiritual sense of wellbeing.  He owes G’d a debt of gratitude for affording him such pleasure.  There is no need to add that such a person cannot demand a reward from G’d for having allowed him to experience such joy.”6

19th-century commentator S.R. Hirsch reached a similar conclusion, although he interpreted the blessing as that you obey God’s rules.  “The observance of God’s commandments is in itself part of the blessing. … The spiritual and moral act of faithfully observing the Torah constitutes in itself a blessed advancement of our whole being; hence, each time we carry out a mitzvah, we bring blessing upon ourselves.”7

Perhaps just as a kelalah is a diminishment, a brakhah is an enlargement.  Those who choose to pay attention to God may be enlarged materially, with blessings of prosperity, fertility, etc.; or spiritually, with the blessing of an expansive and joyful soul.

This points to another meaning of the presence of God’s dwelling-place in the list of blessings in Bechukotai.  Regardless of whether there is a temple or not, God will be present among the people who pay attention to God’s words and live by them.  This kind of presence is indeed an enlargement.


If you live in a community of people who make bad choices, you will inevitably suffer for their mistakes and misdeeds.  In a material sense, you will be cursed.  Nevertheless if you, personally, choose to do the right thing, you will receive the blessing of becoming a better and more joyful person.8

Thus virtue becomes its own reward.

(I posted an earlier version of this essay in 2012.)

  1. Deuteronomy 11:30, near the ancient town of Shekhem. See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.
  2. The formula for the recital comes later, in Deuteronomy 27:11-28:48.
  3. Deuteronomy 12:1-31.
  4. Leviticus 26:18-33, followed by: And those of you remaining, I will bring despair into your heart in the lands of your enemies. And you will pursue the sound of leaves being blown away, and you will flee as if you were fleeing from the sword, and they will fall when there are none pursuing.  And you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.”  (Leviticus 26:36-37)  (This description could be based on the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E., with its mass deportations.)
  5. It is also absent from the Torah’s third and final list of blessings and curses, Deuteronomy 28:1-48.
  6. Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, Or HaChayim, translated in
  7. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 231 on 11:27.
  8. In some parts of the bible (which was, after all, written down by fallible humans), the God-character demands actions that are not ethical. Paying attention to the bible should include discerning which commands are divinely inspired ethical principles.

Bechukkotai: A Rejecting Nefesh

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, Bechukkotai (“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.

Pomegranates, photo by M.C.

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

Bitter Drink by Adriaen Brouwer, 17th century

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 nefeshbecomes “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.) 

  1. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 661.

Bechukkotai: Why Obey?

Why should the Israelites obey God’s rules?  The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Bechukotai (“By my decrees”), answers the question with a carrot and a stick.

The carrot is that if they do obey, God will reward them with abundant produce from their crops; no attacks by wild beasts; either peace, or victory if they choose to go to war; and God’s presence in their midst.1

The stick is much longer.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your soul is nauseated by my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant; then I on my part will do this to you: (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:14-16)

The first punishments God threatens are disease and raids by neighboring countries.  If the Israelites continue disobeying and gagging on God’s rules, the second round of punishments will be drought and crop failure.

Then the Torah changes the unacceptable attitude from nausea to either perverse opposition or disbelief.  God introduces the third round of punishments with:

And if you walk keri with me, and you are not willing to heed me, then I will go on striking at you …  (Leviticus 26:21)

keri (קֶרִי) = in perverse opposition; only by chance.

The word keri occurs only seven times in the Hebrew Bible, all seven in the Torah portion Bechukkotai.  Most older translations use the English word “contrary”, but some commentators posit that keri comes from the verb karah (קָרָה) = befell unexpectedly, happened by chance.2

Lion attack, Persepolis

When people in the Torah “walk with God”, they are following God’s rules and desires.  In this week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites walk in opposition to God, as if what happens to them comes only by chance and not by God’s will, then they will suffer.   In the third round of threats, God promises that wild beasts will kill their children and their cattle, and their roads will become empty.

The fourth round of threats begins:

And if these do not make you accept my discipline, and you walk keri with me, then I, even I, will walk by keri with you, and I will strike you …  (Leviticus 26:23-24)

Now God promises to oppose the Israelites and/or treat them as irrelevant to God’s will.  At this point God will let the enemies of the Israelites besiege their cities.  Everyone who crowds inside the city walls for shelter will be afflicted with disease and starve for lack of bread.

The fifth and final round of punishments also uses the word keri.

And if despite this you do not heed me, and you go with me by keri, then I will walk with you with a fury of keri, and I will punish you …  (Leviticus 26:27-28)

This time the starving Israelites will eat their own children, while God stands by.  God will destroy their hilltop shrines (because worshiping other gods is one of the ways the Israelites keep breaking God’s commandments).  Then their enemies will destroy their cities, the land will be desolated, and the people will be scattered in other countries.3

Assyrian & Babylonian Deportations

Modern scholars estimate that the list of blessings and punishments in this week’s Torah portion, like much of the book of Leviticus, was written sometime after the war of 589-587 BCE, when the Babylonian army finished conquering the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, and deported most of its upper classes and craftsmen.  (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire a century and a half before.)  So the five levels of punishment had already happened when God’s speech was written.

By framing history as God’s prediction (or threat) at Mt. Sinai, the Torah drives home the idea that the downfall of the Israelites of Judah was their own fault.  God warned them, but they continued to walk keri with God, so of course they suffered the ultimate punishments.

Guilt is more effective than fear

The Torah portion Bechukkotai also shows that escalating punishments do not work.  The only effects of experiencing the helplessness of being without God’s protection are misery and excessive fear.

And I will bring the remainder of you faint-hearted into the lands of your enemies.  The sound of blowing leaves will pursue them, and they will flee as if fleeing from the sword, and they will fall although nobody is pursuing.  (Leviticus 26:36)

The image of running away from blowing leaves (commonly translated into English as “a driven leaf”) emphasizes that the deported Israelites live in a state of continuous anxiety.

Then you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.  (Leviticus 26:38)

Being lost and eaten up may refer to death, or it may refer to assimilation.  Either way, there would be no more Israelites.  Nevertheless, God expects some of the exiles to feel not only faint-hearted, but also guilty.4  Once they recognize their guilt, there is hope for them.

Then they must confess their guilt and the guilt of their forefathers in failing to do their duty; that they were undutiful to me, and also that they walked by keri with me.  Indeed, I myself will walk by keri with them and I will bring them into the land of their enemies; perhaps that is when their uncircumcised heart will become humbled, perhaps that is when they will make amends for their wrongdoing. (Leviticus 26:40-41)

When the diminishing Israelites do confess and repent, they “circumcise” their hearts, making them open and sensitive to God’s word.  At that point God promises to remember the covenant with their ancestors Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and with the people God rescued from Egypt.5  The implication is that then God will rescue the remaining Israelites from Babylon and bring them back to their former land.

Why do the Israelites disobey and oppose their God?

Here are my favorite theories:

  1. When people stop studying God’s rules, they no longer understand them, so they don’t bother to obey them. They justify their disobedience by deciding they are superior to those who blindly obey stupid laws. Only someone who understands the reasons for divine laws can obey them with love.6
  2. When bad things happen, it is human nature to blame someone else and avoid introspection. We might blame other people, or we might blame God. Since we do not change our own behavior, nothing changes in the world. 7
  3. When we are taught only in terms of physical reward and punishment, we develop an unhealthy relationship with the authority figure. Either we mindlessly do anything to win the authority figure’s approval, or we live in continual fear, or we come to despise the authority figure and rebel against the rules.

What changes their minds about God?

Fear leads to temporary obedience, and reward and punishment work on a simple level with non-human animals and small children.  But as humans learn to think, we make their own judgments about right and wrong.  In this week’s Torah portion, people return to obeying and trusting God only when they come to believe they did something wrong, and feel guilty about it.  Then they want to make amends.

The very act of making amends by returning to their religion gives the Israelites meaning and purpose in their lives.  They can once again feel God’s presence in their midst.


I know I will never be a wholly observant Jew.  Jewish halakhah, the “way to walk”, is a corpus of religious laws refined over the centuries from the Talmud’s discussions of the laws in the Torah.  Some of these laws remain meaningless to me even when I study them.  Therefore (since I do not belong to a tight orthodox community where strict observance is at least good manners) I do not bother to observe those particular rules.

But I work hard to do the morally right thing, and whenever I realize I have failed, I feel guilty, and I do what I can to atone.  I find that virtue really is its own reward, bringing me courage and calmness even in adverse physical circumstances.  I also persist in noticing all creation with awe and wonder, which leads to gratitude and the feeling that life is meaningful.  Because I work on obeying moral principles and maintaining an attitude of awe and gratitude, I believe I am serving God with joy, not walking with God by keri.

May each of us find meaning in life.  And may we treat one another with mutual respect, so we can avoid the dead end of an authority figure commanding obedience—or else.

  1. See my post Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.
  2. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that keri means unintentionally; going with God unintentionally is a form of rejection (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 951). 21st-century scholar Robert Alter translated keri as “encounter (against)” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 663).  The Chabad translation is “happenstance” in
  3. Leviticus 26:16-33.
  4. Leviticus 26:39.
  5. Leviticus 26:42, 26:45.
  6. Based on Hirsch, ibid., pp. 944-945; and Or Torah (Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, 1804), translation by Arthur Green, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 310-311.
  7. Based on Adin Even-Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 271.

Haftarat Bechukotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Bechukkotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 16:19-17:14.

The God depicted in the Torah has sudden fits of anger and smites large groups of people, the innocent along with the guilty. No wonder so many people in the books of Exodus and Numbers do not trust this god to lead them safely to a new land! Yet the prophets from Moses on insist that trusting God—and following God’s rules—will be rewarded.

build houses and plant vineyards 2

For example, this week’s Torah portion, Bechukkotai  (“By My decrees”) opens with this divine promise:

If you go by My decrees, and My commands you observe, and you do them … Then [your] threshing will overtake [your] grape harvest, and [your] grape harvest will overtake your sowing, and you will eat your bread to satiation, and you will rest labetach in your land. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3, 5)

labetach (לָבֶטַח) = in security, with a feeling of safety. (From the root verb batach (בּטח) = trust, rely on, feel safe.)

The next verse shows that the feeling of safety will be justified:

And I will put peace in the land, and you will life down and nothing will frighten you, and I will keep bad beasts from the land, and a sword will not cross your land. (Leviticus 26:6)

This promise is never fulfilled in the Bible. Many of its books point out that the Israelites keep veering off the right path, disobeying the rules and worshiping other gods. It is their fault, not God’s, that they are never safe in their land.

In this model, God judges the people as a group; an individual, however virtuous, suffers the fate of his whole city or country. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah God sends the Babylonians to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, because its people are acting immorally and worshiping other gods.

First Temple-2

Some Jerusalemites think God will keep them safe because they have an impressive Temple stocked with priests. But the prophet Jeremiah warns:

Do not tivtechu in yourselves, in words of deception, saying: The temple of God, the temple of God, the temple of God is these [buildings]. (Jeremiah 7:4)

tivtechu (תִּבְטְחוּ) = you trust.  (Also from the root batach.)

The king of Judah and his officials think they can rely (batach) on fortifications, or stored-up wealth, or a rescue by the Egyptian army, or the words of prophets who contradict Jeremiah.

This week’s haftarah includes a poem on the futility of relying on other human beings, and the rewards of relying only on God.

Thus said God:

Cursed is the man yivtach in humankind

And makes flesh his strength;

He turns away his mind from God.

He is like a bare tree in the desert valley…

Blessed is the man yivtach in God;

And God is mivtacho.

Fruit (peaches)

He is like a tree planted by water:

By a stream it sends forth its roots,

And it does not notice when summer heat comes,

And its leaves are luxuriant;

In a year without rain it does not worry,

And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:5-8)

yivtach (יְבְטַח) = who trusts, who relies on, who feels safe. (Also from the root batach.)

mivtacho (מִבְטַחוֹ) = what he trusts. (Also from the root batach.)

This poem (like psalms 8, 31, 52, and 56) takes a personal view of trusting God, and promises that individuals who rely on God are rewarded with long and fruitful lives—perhaps even if most of their people reject God. Since the word batach covers feelings as well as deeds, Jeremiah is promising a reward for individuals who have the right feelings about God. (See my earlier post, Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.)

Later in the book of Jeremiah we get an example of an individual who has the batach feeling about God. Just before the Babylonian army breaches the walls of Jerusalem, God tells Jeremiah to give a message to a Kushite servant of the king called Eved-Melekh, “servant of the king”.


Go and say to Eved-Melekh the Kushi: Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: … I will certainly save you, and you will not fall by the sword, and you will keep your life—because batachta in me, declares God. (Jeremiah 39:16, 18)

Kushi (כּוּשִׁי) = Kushite; a dark-skinned person from Kush, the land south of Egypt (now Ethiopia), or a descendant of a Kishite.

batachta (בָּטַחְתָּ) = you trusted, you felt safe.

In what way did the Kushi trust in God?

The year before, four officials of the king’s court in Jerusalem heard Jeremiah tell the people that God is giving the city to the Babylonian army, and whoever stays will die, but whoever defects to the Babylonians will live.

And the officials said to the king: Let this man be killed, please, because he is weakening the hands [morale] of the remaining soldiers in the city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking this way…And King Zedekiah said: Hey, he is in your hands, because the king can do nothing to oppose you. (Jeremiah 38:4-5)

The king feels as though he has to act as if he trusts his officials; he does not dare oppose them, even though he knows Jeremiah is a true prophet of God.

Then they took Jeremiah and they threw him down into the pit of Malkiyahu, son of the king, which was in the court of the guard, and they sent Jeremiah to his death. But Eved-Melekh the Kushi, a eunuch in the palace of the king, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the pit. And the king was sitting in the Gate of Benjamin. So Eved-Melekh went out from the palace of the king, and to spoke to the king, saying: My lord the king, these men have done evil in all they did to Jeremiah the prophet! They threw him down into the pit, and he will die below from starvation…

Jeremiah and Kushi and pit

The Kushi, a palace eunuch, might hesitate to speak against four powerful court officials. He might also hesitate to interrupt the king when he is dispensing justice in the city gate. But Eved-Melekh pleads for Jeremiah’s life without worrying about his own fate. And King Zedekiah seems relieved to have someone interrupt him and speak on Jeremiah’s behalf.

Then the king commanded Eved-Melekh the Kushi, saying: Take from here three men and raise Jeremiah the prophet from the pit before he dies. (Jeremiah 39:10)

Eved-Melekh saves Jeremiah’s life, and the prophet returns to the regular prison, where he gets bread and water until the Babylonian soldiers destroy Jerusalem about a year later. Then the Babylonians free Jeremiah and send him to another town in Judah. The four court officials do not take revenge on the Kushi eunuch, and we can assume that when the Babylonian general decides which Jerusalemites will die, which will be deported to Babylon, and which will be moved to another town in Judah, the Kushi is among those whose life is spared.

Eved-Melekh’s feeling of trust in God lets him do the right thing and rescue God’s prophet at the risk of his own life. This palace servant is especially remarkable because he is an immigrant from another country—who nevertheless serves the God of Israel better than Judah’s native officials and king do.

The Torah portion in Leviticus says that when all the people follow God’s rules, then God will reward them with real security, and as a result they will feel safe (labetach) in their land. But not even Moses can get all the people to follow God’s rules.

The haftarah from Jeremiah says that when individuals feel safe (yivtach) with God, then they are motivated to do good deeds, and as a result God rewards them with life and fruitfulness.

The book of Jeremiah does not say whether the eunuch Kushi becomes fruitful in some way other than having children. But God does reward him with life.

In my own life, I admit, I rarely feel safe enough to speak out in threatening situations or to oppose the plans of the powerful. But when I actually do, I feel filled with a spirit that I did not know I had, perhaps a divine spirit. And that grounded elation is its own reward, as I move forward with new courage and good deeds, fruitful and alive.

Bechukotai: Gender, Age, and Personal Value

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Men are worth more than women.  It says so in the Torah—or does it?

A list of the equivalent value in silver of each of eight classes of people appears in Bechukkotai (“by My decrees”), the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra:

Weighing scales by Cornelius MatsysWhen someone undertakes a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God— (Leviticus/Vayikra 27:2)

erekekha (עֶרְכְּךֳ) = the equivalent value, assessment.

—then the erekekha of the male of age 20 years up to age 60 years, erekekha will be 50 shekels of silver according to the shekel-weight of the Holy place. And if she is a female, erekekha will be 30 shekels. (Leviticus 27:3-4)

And if from age 5 years up to age 20 years, erekekha will be for the male 20 shekels, and for the female 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:5)

And if from the age of a month up to age 5 years, erekekha will be for the male 5 shekels of silver, and erekekha for the female 3 shekels of silver. (Leviticus 27:6)

And if from age 60 years and above, if male, erekekha will be 15 shekels, and for the female, 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:7)

In this lis of equivalent values, males are assigned a higher erekekha than females, and adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are assigned a higher erekekha than children or seniors.  Individual differences between people within each of the eight classes of persons are disregarded.

What does undertaking “a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God” mean?

Leviticus includes a number of mandatory gifts to the sanctuary or the priests who serve there.  All Israelite households are required to give:

* tithes.

* the firstborn of their livestock and a portion of their first fruits.

* the prescribed animal and grain offerings for relieving guilt and thanking God for good fortune.

* the prescribed offerings for being readmitted into the community after a period of ritual impurity.

The tithes and the first farm products are like annual taxes or membership dues.  For the ancient Israelites, there was no separation of temple and state; every citizen was also a member of the religious community and had to help support the religious rituals at the temple.  Individuals had to make additional payments to support the rituals for specified situations in their own lives.

I daresay most Israelites were glad to be part of a system that connected them with their God through concrete actions.  And sometimes one of them had a religious impulse, and felt moved to pledge an extra donation.

Ancient Israelites could not do this by simply writing a check.  In fact, even coins were not invented until the sixth century B.C.E. (A shekel was a measure of weight in silver, rather than a coin.) So the Torah portion Bechukkotai considers four other things that could be donated:  a field, a house, part or all of an edible animal, and the erekekha of a person.

The Talmud tractate Arakhin, written during the first few centuries C.E. by rabbis analyzing this passage in the Torah, states that either a man or a woman could make this vow.  A person often dedicated his or her own erekekha to the temple in Jerusalem.  But someone could also vow to donate the erekekha of any person belonging to him or her at the time—i.e. someone the vower owned and could legally sell.  In that era, people could sell their slaves or their own underage sons and daughters.

When someone made the vow, a priest would collect a token pledge.  Then sometime later, the vower would come to the temple and fulfill his or her vow by paying the erekekha in silver.

Why donate the equivalent value of a person?

Wouldn’t it be simpler to vow to give a certain weight of silver to the sanctuary?  Why bring a person into the equation?

One theory is that the system of erekekha was developed to replace the custom of giving human beings to God, either by sacrificing them at the altar or by dedicating them to service at a temple.

Human sacrifice was widespread in the ancient Near East, and is mentioned several times in the Bible.  In the book of Judges, an Israelite general named Yiftach (Jephthah in English) vows that if God lets him vanquish the enemy and return safely, he will give God whatever comes out the door of his house by making it a burnt offering.  His daughter comes out the door.  She is sacrificed.

“Samuel Dedicated by Hannah” by Frank W.W. Topham



In the first book of Samuel, Hannah vows that if God lets her have a son, she will give him to God for “all the days of his life”.  Once her son, Samuel, is weaned, she brings him to the temple in Shiloh to serve as an assistant to the high priest.

The book of Leviticus, on the other hand, describes the practices of the priests during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem, centuries after the period described in Judges and Samuel.  Human sacrifice has been banned, and the priests and Levites who serve at the temple in Jerusalem inherit their positions.

But perhaps some people still made vows that if God would do something extraordinary for them, then they would do something extraordinary for God. And perhaps some people simply wanted to be consecrated to the temple, even though they could not be priests or Levites.

One way to achieve this was to replace the donation of a human being with the donation of the human being’s erekekha in silver.

The time lag between the vow and the delivery of the erekekha is not explained in either the Bible or the Talmud.  Perhaps some people felt moved to make an unusual vow before they had saved up enough silver to fulfill it.

Or perhaps the time lag was important because between the time of the vow and the time the silver was delivered, the person whose erekekha was vowed was considered consecrated—marked out as having a holy purpose.

Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made you consecrated to God for a period of time.  Unlike a monk or nun (or a nazirite in ancient Israel—see my blog post Naso: Let Down Your Hair), you would continue with your usual life.  But the meaning of your life would be different.

Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made your servant or your young child consecrated to God for a period of time.

Why set the value according to age and gender?

The erekekha of a person is not his or her market value. The eight classifications according to age and gender do bear some relation to a person’s ability to perform work; generally speaking, adults between the ages of 20 and 60 can do more work than the very old or the very young, and men can do more literal heavy lifting than women.  But the market value of an individual sold as a slave varied according to the person’s physical and mental condition.  (Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 2a)  The eight assessments for a person’s erekekha disregard any individual strengths or weaknesses.

The assignment of values according to age and gender probably reflects the prejudices of society in the ancient Near East, which was dominated by men who were heads of households. Yet Judith Antonelli, in her book In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, argues that the lower erekekha for women indicates that the ancient Israelites respected women more than their neighbors did.  “…the lower prices for women reflect the Torah’s prohibition of sexual slavery. Where female slaves are officially used for sex as well as for labor—that is, kept in harems as concubines—they are in greater demand than male slaves and thus command a higher price.”

In other words, even slave women had value as persons, not merely as sex objects.

So the amount of each erekekha reflected the realities of an agricultural society in which brawn mattered, free men dominated, and children were possessions.  But vowing to pay the erekekha of a woman, child, or old person, meant respecting that person’s value.  By consecrating him or her to God for the period of your vow, you were assigning a high value to your slave or your child.

And when you consecrated yourself to God by vowing to pay your own erekekha, you were assigning a high value to your own life.

Today our systems of religious worship are very different.  But I wonder if we could devise a new way to consecrate our own life, or the life of someone in our family, for a period of time until we achieve a goal. It would change the way we treated ourselves or the other person.  And everyone, of any age and gender, might be worth more.


Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward

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.