Why Would God Curse His People?
The Real Reason For God's Curses In The Bible
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week's parsha, the Torah presents a stark choice: follow God and live, or abandon Him and die. Does this just reinforce God as a terrifying deity, or is there something more here?
It reminds us of one of the most catastrophic moments in the Torah: man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The simplicity of life, the plentiful fruit, the chance to be close to God – all taken away, just like that. If only there were some way to get that back, to have a chance at that blissful existence and that closeness with God, once more.
Well, what if there was?
In Parshat Bechukotai, the Torah seems to deliberately drop hints that hearken back to the Garden. Clue after clue points us to a path to recreate that idyllic experience – and it all seems to rest upon keeping one specific commandment. That was a clue, by the way.
Through an analysis of language and a comparison to the Garden of Eden, Rabbi Fohrman shows us how "choosing life" will show us the way to cling to God. Watch this video and discover the path back to the Garden of Eden.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Bechukotai.
This week's Parsha presents the Jewish people with what seems like a very raw choice. A choice essentially between life and death: follow God's commands and live, or abandon them and die.
Why Would God Curse the Israelites?
The language here that describes the consequences that will ensue for the Israelites if they abandon God’s ways is very, very vivid and almost horrifying. And the question is, does this just sort of reinforce the old caricature that some of us have: God is the old man upon some sort of heavenly throne, who delights in throwing javelins at the poor sufferings mortals below? If that's not the God that we believe in, then how do we read the language of a parsha like this? I would like to try to address that question with you here.
And let's start our exploration with this: when the parsha opens and says, Im bechukotai telechu, if you will follow my commands, what exactly does the Torah mean? Is that sort of a generic exhortation – 'and if you follow all of God's commands' – or is it a specific exhortation to follow specific commands? The answer seems to be that we are dealing with very, very specific commands because when we go towards the very end of our parsha and we talk about all the terrible things that will happen if these commands aren't kept, we read this language... at the very end of these all, when Israel is exiled and other lands: az tirtzeh ha'aretz et-shabtoteiha, the text says, “then the land will rest its Sabbaths.” Kol yemei hoshamah, “all the days of the desolation,” when you are on your enemy’s territory,” az tishbat haaretz, that's when the land will finally rest.
We are talking here about the laws of shemittah and yovel, the sabbatical years, the rests, so to speak, that Israel must give its land. That seems to be the focus of these laws that must be kept here. If you walk in My ways, keep these Shabbatot, these sabbatical years, things will go well for you — and if not, it will be a disaster.
Another question is: Why are these laws of keeping the shemittah year, the sabbatical year, why do those elevate themselves so highly in the various lists of 613 laws, that this seemingly is what it all depends on?
Understanding God's Curses in the Bible
So I want to read with you, what I think is a very, very intriguing clue that comes from a Midrashic statement quoted by Rashi. The verse tells us that if you walk in God's ways, vehithalachti betochechem, God says then I will walk with you.” Seems like a pretty straightforward verse: You walk with me, I will walk with you. But now, listen to Rashi, vehithalachti betochechem, “and I shall walk with you.” Etayel imchem began eden, Rashi says, “I shall stroll with you in the Garden of Eden.” What does Garden of Eden have to do with anything? We are in the book of Leviticus, we are not in the book of Genesis. Why do the Rabbis feel compelled to tell us that if God is going to walk with us in the land, it's like He is going to be strolling with us in the garden? What forces them to say such a strange thing?
The answer to that, I believe, is the text of the Torah itself. If you look at the text of the Torah, you will see what forces the Rabbis to say this — because the text of Bechukotai is replete with allusion after allusion to life in the Garden of Eden. It's as if we're replaying the Garden of Eden one more time.
To show you what I mean, let's go back to the original creation story when man is first created and placed in the garden.
Biblical Connections to God's Blessings and Curses
Man is created on the 6th day of creation, and when that happens, you'll recall, God blesses him, and in that blessing, God states:
- Pru urvu umilu et haaretz, “be fruitful and multiply,” fill the land.
- Vechivshuha, “conquer the land.”
It is actually kind of strange to talk about conquering to Adam and Eve, who are they going to conquer? There is no other armies. But you would suppose maybe it means the animal world, like the next thing that the verse says: urdu bidegat hayam, “and you will have dominion over the fish, over the fowl and over the animals.” And after we talk about dominion over the animal world, we talk about dominion over the plant world: hineh natati lachem et-kol-esev zorea zera, “I am giving you all the grasses and weeds of the fields.” And then after we talk about the plant world, we talk about the world of trees: v'et-kol-haetz asher-bo pri-etz, “and the trees and all the fruits of the trees,” lachem yihyeh l'achlah, “you will be able to eat all of these.” And of course, after this, the 6th day is over and we get to the 7th day, we get to the Sabbath.
And now, with that in mind, follow me into Bechukotai, into our parsha. Does anything in our parsha remind you of this?
And the answer is: everything in Bechukotai reminds you of this. In the prologue part of the Bechukotai, the blessing part, vehifeiti etchem vehirbeiti etchem, “and I will multiply you,” God says. Ah, that was the first part of the blessing. Well, what was the next part of the blessing? Remember vechivshuha? “And you will conquer the land,” God had said to Adam and Eve. Well, now, uredaftem et-oyveichem. “You will run after your enemies,” venaflu lifneichem lecharev. “They will fall before you by the sword; 50 of you will chase a hundred, a hundred will chase 10,000.” Sure sounds a lot alike “and you will conquer it.”
What was the next part of the blessing? Dominion over the animal world. Well, if you go into Bechukotai, you get to dominion over the animal world, too. Vehishbati chayah raah min-haaretz, God says, “I am going to take care of all the terrible beasts so that they don't harm you.” And right before this, vehisig lachem dayish et-batzir, “you are going to have grains and abundance.” And right before that? V'etz hasadeh yiten pirio, “the trees of the field will provide for you.” It's all happening backwards.
Every single element of the blessing is showing up here, leading right into Sabbath. Right after all the blessings, after the 6th day, you have the Sabbath, and right before all of these, im bechukotai telechu, “if you follow My laws,” — which laws? The laws of the sabbatical year, the Sabbath laws, the Sabbath for land. All the Sages did was to point you in this direction with a little wink and a nod. They saw that God was suggesting that we could recreate Eden, the original Garden of Eden that we were expelled from. That didn't work out but this is a second chance.
How to Break God's Curse on Adam and Eve
The land of Israel is a second chance. We can do it again; I could walk with you once more. I tried walking with you in the garden... but it didn't work. Vayishmu et-kol Hashem Elokom mithalech began laruach hayom, “Adam and Eve listened to the voice of God strolling in the Garden in the afternoon.” But they hid from God because they sinned. This time you need not hide from me, God says. I will stroll with you, we will be buddies together, we will walk together, velo tihiu mizdaazim mimeni, “and you shall not cringe before Me.” Everything will be fine, come and enjoy the life in the garden but in order to make it in the garden you have to keep the sabbatical year's laws.
Well, in order to understand that, let me go back to the garden with you, and I want to explore a very strange aspect of the original Garden of Eden. As you may know, the original garden had two special trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you ate from the Tree of Life, it would give you, apparently, eternal life. But if you ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it would make you mortal; you would become a being that would die.
And now, let me ask you, how did these trees accomplish these spectacular feats? How could one tree give you death and another tree give you life? Was it just sort of fairy dust that the Almighty sprinkled on these trees? Or was there a mechanism by which these trees granted life or death? And if so, what was that mechanism?
I would like to suggest a theory about that to you. Let's think about this carefully. What's the only thing that can really grant you eternal life? Everything that we see in the world eventually dies. So what would have to happen in order for you to live forever?
Well, think about it: there's only one source of eternality in the world. There is only thing that lives forever — and that is God himself. So the only way for human beings to live forever would be to somehow cling to God so tightly that they would partake in the immortality of the Almighty Himself.
But how do you cling to God? You can't touch God, you can't feel him, so how would you embrace God and hold on to Him so tightly that you would be immortal just like Him?
That gets to a very deep question: what it means to cling to God. In Hebrew the term is devekut. What does devekut really mean? How do we achieve it?
The Clue: God's Cursed Tree in the Bible
Here's the theory: there was a loving relationship between the Master of the universe and us, His creatures. The nature of that relationship, in the Garden of Eden, was this: God put us in paradise, gave us wonderful trees to eat. The very first mitzvah in the garden was to eat from all the trees. It wasn't to stay away from one tree. That came afterwards. Mikol etz-hagan achal tochel, “You shall surely eat, yes, eat from all these trees.” God wants us to enjoy the trees. What is it that any parent would want when he gives a wonderful toy to a child? He wants to see the kid enjoy the toy. God wants to see us enjoy the trees, too. Enjoy the trees but there's one tree I put off limits, it's a Godly tree, it's called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, don't eat that, that's My tree in the garden.
Why would God put that tree in the garden? If He doesn't want us to eat from it, why bother putting it there in the first place? Because if a parent gives a toy, gives a wonderful gift to a child, the parent wants one more thing besides seeing the child enjoy the toy. The parent wants the child to understand that the toy came from the parent, it was a gift. The child can never lose sight of that, can never give into the illusion that the toy was always there. That that's just the way the world was. There was just this toy and to lose sight of the giver. The child needs to delight in the toy but must remember where it comes from.
We need to delight in the trees but to understand where they come from, too. And therefore God says the way that you are going to show Me that you understand that, the way that you are going to avoid the illusion that they were just there, is to maintain one restriction: to stay away from the one tree, that's My tree.
Avoiding God's Curses
When you abide by that one restriction, that's your way of understanding that everything else is a gift, that I am the Master of the garden. There's one tree that's special and that's for Me. That’s My tree. If you do this, if you enjoy the luscious fruits of all the trees and you abide by that one restriction, then do you know what you are doing? That's devekut, that's clinging to me. Hidden amongst all those other trees in the garden, right in the middle of the garden, the Tree of Life. It's the path to living forever.
And what is the path to death? If you say, I don't like abiding by that restriction, I want to feel that it's mine. If there's one tree that’s off-limits, if I constantly remind myself, this is gift on loan from God. Maybe God will take it away one day. Let me exert control over everything and I will feel more secure. Ironically, that's the path to insecurity because when you let go of the source of all life, when you no longer embrace Him, when you succumb to the illusion of your own full and complete control, then you're just like everything else that dies — and you will die too.
That's the way it was in the original garden and that's the way it is in the land of Israel, too. It's a land flowing with milk and honey, there are all of these trees, have them all, enjoy it but understand it is a gift. How will you understand it's a gift? Because there's one restriction that you abide by to understand that the land is a gift that belongs to God — and it is the sabbatical year. What the tree of knowledge is to space, the sabbatical year is to time. It is the new Tree of Knowledge.
The Meaning of God's Curses in the Bible
In the original garden all of the trees were permitted save for one; in the land of Israel, all of the trees are permitted save for one period of time, the sabbatical year. Abide by that restriction and enjoy the fruits of the land and you cling to God and you live. Abandon that restriction and you abandon the source of life — and when you abandon the source of life, the crumbling of your national fabric, the onset of death, is inevitable. It's not a punishment really, it's just a natural consequence of the way things are.
The Creator is not a javelin-throwing old man on a heavenly throne. The Creator is the source of all life, who wants nothing more than to walk with us and thereby to bestow that life upon us as a people.
Closeness with God is a privilege but it is a responsibility, too. Life in the garden comes with a supreme challenge: the ability to deal with closeness with God, to forge a relationship out of it and not to turn one's back on the Almighty by living in a narcissistic illusion of self-sufficiency. Vehithalachti betochechem, “stroll with Me in the garden.” God says.
I want to enjoy your presence in the garden, I want you to enjoy the luscious fruits I give you — and when you do, I want you to understand that they come from Me. To do so is to embrace life itself. To fail to do so is to let go of the source of life. That's just the way it is — and therefore, choose life.