Bechuotai 5782 – The Power of the Bad

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

The book of Vayikra draws to a close by outlining the blessings that will follow the Israelites if they are faithful to their covenant with God. Then it describes a much longer series of curses, the tochechah, that will befall them if they are not faithful. The general principle is clear. In biblical times, the fate of the nation mirrored the conduct of the nation. If people behaved well, the nation would prosper. If they behavedd badly, eventually bad things would happen.  Our parsha bluntly sets out the terms of that equation:  it takes the form of inducements and intimidations, promises of prosperity, security and peace, and then threats of disease, famine, war, chaos, and exile.  The future of ancient Israel in its homeland will depend entirely on its adherence to the revelation at Sinai. There is a tone of urgency. Free will has its risks; people may choose to put themselves in harm’s way.  The audience for this concluding address is the people as a whole, and not the individual Israelite.  The warnings come directly from God. The images are vivid.  The word keri, key to the whole passage, is repeated seven times. It appears nowhere else in the entire Tanach. Keri seems to be the root cause of the people’s sins and the driving force of God’s retribution.  But its meaning is uncertain. It may mean rebelliousness, obstinacy, indifference, hardheartedness, reluctance or being left to chance. But the basic principle is clear. “If you act toward me with keri, says God, I will turn that same attribute against you, and you will be devastated.”

These curses will occur not only if the people of Israel violate God’s laws but even if they obey them in a spirit that drains them of religious value. If the people of Israel follow the commands without love, in a calculated manner, God says,” I will act towards you coldly.”

This is a remarkable reading and points toward a distinction that we sometimes forget: divine punishment on one hand, and the withdrawal of divine providence the other – what the Torah calls ” the hiding of the face” of God. When God punishes, he punishes the guilty. But when God hides his face, even the innocent may suffer.

Why are the curses in this week’s parsha so much longer and stronger than the blessings? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the answer is that God loves and forgives, but with the proviso that, when we do wrong, we acknowledge the fact, express remorse, make restitution to those we have harmed, and repent. We see that the stick is more a powerful motivator than the carrot. Fear of the curses is more likely to affect behavior than desire for the blessings. Threat of punishment is more effective than promise of reward. Where there is a clear threat of punishment for bad behavior, people behave better.  The reason the curses are so dramatic is not because God seeks to punish but the precisely opposite. The curses were meant as a warning. They were intended to deter, guide, and discourage. They are like a parent warning a child not to play with matches. The parent may deliberately intend to scare the child, but he or she does so out of love, not meanness. Too often we make the wrong choices because we don’t think of the consequences. Judaism is a religion of love and forgiveness.  But it is also a religion of justice. Without punishment, there is no effective law, and without law there is no society. That is why the curses are so powerful, dramatic and fear inducing.  The more powerfully one can present the bad, the more likely people are to choose good.

 It has been a custom to read tochechah in a low voice in the synagogue, which has the symbolic effect of robbing them of their terrifying power if said out loud. But they are fearful enough however they are read. And both here and later in Devarim, the section on curses is longer and far more graphic than the section on blessings. This seems to contradict a basic principle of Judaism, that God’s generosity to those who are faithful Him vastly exceeds His punishment to those who are not. In Leviticus, the curses end with a note of consolation. It says that even in their worst hours, the Jewish people will never be destroyed.  God will not reject them. The covenant will still be in force and its terms still operative. No matter where they are they will still be bound by mutual responsibility and be responsible for one another. They will still be a nation with the shared fate and destiny.

In a book by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, “The Power of the Bad”, the authors argue based on substantial scientific evidence, that bad has far more impact than honest and good. We pay more attention to bad news than good news. Bad health makes more difference to us than good health. Criticism affects us more than praise. A bad reputation is easier to acquire and harder to lose than a good one.  The Power of the Bad gives some excellent tips on how to become happier by identifying your tendency toward negativity and what psychology and research has to show you about how to beat it. The authors say that if one thing goes wrong, don’t interpret it as a harbinger of inevitable doom whether you are dealing with a personal setback or contemplating the state of the world.

We live in a world where negative things seem to get all the attention whether in our own minds or otherwise. You may have many positive thoughts but for some reason, the bad one takes control of your brain. Why is this? How do we fix it? Negativity is not good but learning about it may help you be happier.

According to researcher Randy Larsen, not only do negative events and experiences imprint more quickly in our brains, but they also linger longer than positive ones. This phenomenon is known as positive – negative asymmetry or the negativity bias. In other words, we’re more likely to remember an insult or negative event than we are to take in a complement or recall details of a happy event. A study was done which participants were asked to imagine either losing $50 or gaining $50.  Even though the amount is the same, the magnitude of the emotional response was significantly larger for those imagining what it would be like to lose the money. In other words, the negativity bias can cause you to dwell on something negative even if something positive is equal. The negativity of losing something is far greater than the goodness of gaining something, even when the something that has been lost or gained objectively equivalent.

Kenneth Yeager, PhD, suggests the following: you need to put effort into truly valuing all the good and positive aspects of life so that you are not overcome by the negative.  Even if you are facing a multitude of objectively negative situations, you should try to appreciate the positive aspects of life, regardless of how small they may be.

Rabbi Sacks says: “Search for meaning and you will discover strength. For everything there is a meaning. It does not always say: this is why such and such happened. Sometimes it says: given that such and such happened, this is what you must do. Once we find the why, even a curse can be turned into a blessing. Without the why even a blessing can become a curse. So, search for the why and the rest will follow: strength, fulfillment, peace.”