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Truth in advertising


This week’s Torah portion (B’chukotai) starts off amiably enough: If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season… I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down untroubled by anyone…  I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile & multiply you and maintain My covenant with you.

But then we get down to business. If we don’t follow the rules & regs, then (and this is a direct quote): I will wreak misery upon you. Land will lie fallow. Our foes will dominate us. We will become scared of the slightest thing (the sound of a blowing leaf, for instance).

No produce in the fields. Wild beasts. Cattle disease. Pestilence. Famine. Cities in ruin.

Sort of what God did to Pharaoh & Egypt, only more so. If we don’t pay attention and end our wicked ways, then even more so. If we still don’t pay attention, even more so. If we do not allow the land to have its sabbath years, if we do not do what we’re supposed to – kaboom! We’re toast.

In short, we might forget to take care of business, but God will remember.

What I find so compelling about this description is its specificity. This is not metaphor. Our bellies will distend, our children will die of thirst, plague & locust will destroy all we hold near and dear. Would that real life were like that. Not so much the part about following all 613 or else (that would take care of me and everyone I know), but a clear and immediate relationship between how we behave as a community/species and what happens to us and the land/Earth on which we live.

Imagine if every time we tossed a plastic bottle out of car window instead of taking it to the recycling center, hail would pelt our car windows. Or if we had a 10-fold plague of frogs every time we used non-organic pesticides. I’ll bet that Big Oil executives would think twice if their face sprouted nasty boils every time they went before Congress for a tax cut. There is something so clean, so appealing about this kind of cause & effect scenario. It’s easy to ignore our communal bad behavior if the consequences come on slowly or won’t really kick in for another generation. Maybe it’s not really happening. Maybe there’s still time to change after I buy my next gas guzzling car. But it’s a whole other matter if we get whacked on the figurative hand within 5 minutes of screwing up.

Admittedly, this is even beyond the toughest of love. Plus it mitigates against free will more than might be comfortable at first reading. But damn, it sure would work.

We humans are so thick. So slow to change. So convinced that God or the land or the future (take your pick) isn’t talking to us. For a poem on this general subject, see Postcard From the Avenue of Forgetting. It was written after a trip to Beit Shean archaeological park in Israel, a place where many different people have worked the same plot of land and called it home – and where each was convinced they were the last ones to lay claim to it (after killing or enslaving or humiliating the former inhabitants). Four thousand years from now, I hope there’s still some land left as witness to all our 21st Century mistakes.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Aviva Orenstein permalink
    05/19/2011 4:26 pm

    great post, Sue. Particularly liked the boils.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/19/2011 8:49 pm

      I know. It just felt right for the crime in question.

  2. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    05/19/2011 9:46 pm

    Funny I was just thinking about all the complaints about gas prices, but what were people thinking when they bought their gas guzzlers? You’re right, immediate boils and plagues upon purchase would have helped.

  3. Sarah Rubin permalink
    05/23/2011 6:43 am

    “In short, we might forget to take care of business, but God will remember.”

    For some reason, I love this line. In a way, I live in this dilemma – it’s not that I “forget,” so much as that I WANT to forget. I think (hope) that I’m not alone – that WE want NOT to be responsible, NOT to be obligated; we want TO have vacation, personal space, down-time.

    Of course, a little bit of balance is good. But why do I fight so hard just to avoid doing what’s right in front of me – especially when there is satisfaction, good feeling, even “rains in their season” when I live the obligated life? And I feel depressed and wasteful and “bloated” when I don’t.

    Great post – great thoughts about individual and communal responsibility. Thanks!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/23/2011 7:16 am

      I wonder about our collective resistance to doing the right thing. Is it fear of failure? Fear that we won’t get to have what we want? Fear of being adults? I think about this every time I procrastinate when I could be writing, yoga-ing, or any one of a number of things that I love but are frightening in their own way.

      • Sarah Rubin permalink
        05/23/2011 5:48 pm

        I think “fear” is typically less rational than we want to think. Yes, we’re afraid – we’re afraid of success & of failure; we’re afraid of not being needed & of being needed/obligated. That’s why one of my favorite quotes is:

        לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה נבן כחורין ליבטל ממנה
        It is not on you to finish the work, but you also aren’t free to avoid it.

        This, and a line I learned in other circles, “just do the next right thing, one thing at a time,” guide me in a lot of my life. Which isn’t to say I don’t procrastinate and resist all the time. 😉

  4. Dan Price permalink
    05/23/2011 4:09 pm

    Some years ago one of our sons said that it was “no problem” if he turned an assignment in a day late, he just got a lower grade. The engineer in me came up with a solution; a hat with a neon sign under the brim that says “PROBLEM!!” that drops down and lights up whenever needed. I’m still working on the software.

  5. Martha Hilderbrand permalink
    06/01/2011 11:59 pm

    I had never caught the part about being afraid of the slightest thing. I think that is such a great passage and mabe the whole point, because fear comes from being disconected and this Torah portion is just that. If we disconnet with the divine through a break from our responsibilities then we will live in fear and punishment. Great thoughts!

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