This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai (Lev. 26:1 – 27:34) discusses the rewards promised to the Israelites if they follow God’s laws and the punishments which will befall them if they disregard God’s laws. The rewards are: a peaceful life on the land, ample rain in its season, bountiful crops, and the ability to hold off great numbers of enemies. The punishments, much more extensive, are presented in growing severity – famine, illness, oppression and, towards the end, a description that is frightening to contemplate: “As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues”.
Many of the laws of Torah, especially those contained in the holiness code of Leviticus, have to do with our treatment of the land and our fellow people. Set aside food for the poor. Take care of your parents. Don’t gossip. Keep honest weights and measures. Don’t steal. Let the land rest one year out of seven. If we fall away from this behavior, we alienate ourselves from God, but we also tear apart the social contract that keeps a good society thriving and functioning. Perhaps the dire fate of not obeying God’s commands is not so much reward and punishment as it is cause and effect. When we do not keep these commandments, our moral compass can become so out of whack that we have no security, no safety net. When we trust nothing, we fear everything, jumping at the sound of a fallen leaf and running even though no one is chasing.