Utilizing the Contrast

The distinguishing feature of Parashat Bechukotai is the tochacha, a Torah passage describing in harrowing detail the suffering that will befall the Jewish people if they stray from the path of righteousness.  This is the first of two such passages in the Torah; the second is in Parashat Ki Tavo in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy).  After a long and detailed list of mishaps and misfortunes in that latter passage, the Torah says: “All of these curses will come upon you and pursue you and overtake you…because you did not serve the Lord your God amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant” (Devarim 28).  Remarkably, this statement implies a causal relationship between a Judaism that lacks joy and happiness and the dreadful calamities that fill the two passages of chastisement.  If we would only serve God with joy in a time of prosperity, we would, somehow, be able to avoid the painful rebuke.  Lack of this joy is evidently so dangerous that it can enable some sort of eventual severe spiritual ruin.  If happiness plays such a crucial role in Judaism and Torah, it is important to explore, practically speaking, how one may acquire this important trait.  It is interesting that a powerful technique that leads to joyful living emerges from the very predictions of calamity and suffering themselves.

If happiness comes from appreciating everything that we have (as Ben Zoma says in the beginning of the fourth chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers) then it is valuable to understand the basis of the human tendency to take everything for granted.  Rabbi M.C. Luzatto writes in Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) that sometimes the ideas and truths that are most obvious and self-evident are those that are least lived-by –  and most neglected and forgotten.  Perhaps it is so obvious to us how fortunate we are that we think no effort is needed to appreciate the simple things.  In fact, without special effort and without forming new habits, the myriad day-to-day, simple pleasures that we enjoy will pass us by unnoticed.  If one is to take the acquisition of a joyful demeanor seriously, techniques or tools are necessary to overcome the natural hurdles that make this character change challenging.  One such tool is contrasting.  We often don’t appreciate something until it is contrasted with a lesser alternative or an opposite – like the feeling of entering a cool room after spending time in the hot summer sun.  The Torah itself utilizes the tool of contrasting in this passage to strengthen its point.  Before discussing the consequences of disregarding the path of Torah, it discusses the sanguine outcomes of heeding it – many of which are the positive and bright mirror-images of the tragedies that follow.  By extending this method of highlighting the good by contrasting it with the bad, the nightmares of the passage of the tochacha themselves can become a great light.  If our study of these passages is a process of recognizing our own good fortune that we do NOT suffer from each of the tragedies that we read about, we will be able to open our eyes to many things that habit makes us take for granted.  Instead of “Your land will not give its produce and your trees will not yield their fruit,” (26:20) we enjoy prosperity.  Instead of being threatened by the sword and forced to become refugees (26:25), we live in our own homes and in safe neighborhoods.  Today our challenge is not “You shall eat and never be satiated” but rather the threat of obesity that comes from being satiated and never stopping the “You shall eat” part!  Our cities are not “desolate;” they are centers of every convenience and social and economic opportunity.  Thus the passage of rebuke itself can be part of the process of re-training ourselves to appreciate everything that we do have and, and to ultimately achieve true joy and spiritual greatness.

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