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Parshat Bechukotai: Is the model of sin and punishment still relevant today?

What is religion?

We tend to think of being religious as having belief in and being dependent on God, but I would argue that much like the prayer we say every morning upon arising, it is better understood as God faith in us. 

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים, שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה, רבה אמונתך.

I thank you living and eternal King for giving me back my soul in in mercy. Great is Your faithefulness (in human’s).

If we reframe the act of faith as God’s faith in humankind perhaps the world would be a very different place. Let me explain by asking a difficult question about this week’s parsha:  When we suffer both individually and nationally is it a direct punishment from God? The classic approach in Jewish sources to the problem of evil is what we call sin and punishment; We sin, God punishes, we repent and do better next time. Much of this outlook emanates directly from narratives in the Torah – in particular in this week’s parsha. Let’s just read one verse from this Parsha to show what I mean:

אִם־תֵּֽלְכ֤וּ עִמִּי֙ קֶ֔רִי וְלֹ֥א תֹאב֖וּ לִשְׁמֹ֣עַֽ לִ֑י וְיָסַפְתִּ֤י עֲלֵיכֶם֙ מַכָּ֔ה שֶׁ֖בַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶֽם׃

And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. (Leviticus 25:21)


There is no absolute answer and there is certainly not one perspective on the issue. But one thing I have learnt – that the issue MUST be addressed with great sensitivity and humility. With this in mind I want to offer a reading that takes a more holistic macro approach.

Jean Piaget and the Five Stages of Moral Growth

Jean Piaget, a well-known Swiss Psychologist, suggested that there are five stages in the moral development of the human being. At large he views the moral development of the individual as moving from adherence to EXTERNAL rules and laws to INTERNAL conscience. In the early-stage behaviour is managed through the imposition of rules and laws by an external authority who ensure obedience to those rules through administering some form of punishment. In other words, the child adheres to the laws due to fear of punishment or external consequences of their bad actions. In this stage the rules are absolute, unconditional  and punishment is retributive. According to Piaget, however, such a view of human nature is not sustainable. The older we get and the more we recognise a dissonance between what we believe and what exists in reality, the less affective this view of behaviour becomes.  According to Piaget, at this point, a child moves to the next phase which he calls autonomous morality. Here morality depends on INTENTIONS and not just CONSEQUENCES.  Eventually in Piaget’s formulation we get to the final stage of adulthood in which morality stems from an internal human compass that makes autonomous choices of behaviour independent of thoughts about sin and punishment, instead based on assumption of responsibility and ethical considerations.

Using Piaget’s findings, I want to suggest that the Torah has a deep and profound understanding of human nature that parallel’s Piaget’s theory but also differs.

Trajectory of Torah

In the narrative of Adam and Chava God is מתהלך בגן – wondering in the Garden - using the very same word we find in this weeks Parsha:  וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי֙ בְּת֣וֹכְכֶ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּֽהְיוּ־לִ֥י לְעָֽם- and I will wonder amongst you and be for you a God and you will be for me a people.

Much like the authoritative parent the Divine spirit hovers over the individual or nation providing a compelling source of moral authority.  This is the first stage of moral development where punitive action with direct consequence is used as a pedagogical tool to ensure obedience, commitment, and loyalty. But in truth, God wants free people. He does not want us to be robots that simply adhere to his covenenat for fear of punishment. On the contrary, the Torah was revolutionary in conceiving of a unilateral relationship between God and man. Its conception of covenant leaves space for humans to become independent partners in the Divine-Human matrix. And in the same way the parent-child relationship matures over time as the child ‘grows up’, the Divine-Human relationship requires a stage for growth and maturity. One cannot expect a child or a slave understand the depth and beauty of such a complex relationship immediately. They need to develop a sense of self and a sense of freedom that allows for a truly consensual relationship.

In the early Biblical narratives God is an omnipotent presence. By the end in the later books of Ezra, Nechemia and Esther he has ostensibly ‘disappeared’. It is not, however, that he is no longer present, but rather that he contracts himself to allow space for humans to develop. In a sense the people have ‘grown up’ and take responsibly for their national destiny and redemption. The Rabbis were acutely aware of this development and state as much in Gemara shabbat when they talk about the acceptance of the torah. There they imagine the people were coerced into accepting the Torah at Sinai with the image of the mountain hovering over their heads. They suggest that the real true and authentic acceptance of the Torah actually only happened at the time of Esther when God was hidden and hence they were ‘free’ to accept God and his Torah in the ‘right’ way. This is a profoundly modern reading for an ancient Rabbinic text. Centuries before Jean Piaget they intuited a truth about human nature – that a coercive relationship does not work because men are naturally inclined to freedom. Therefore, morality must come from internal affirmation rather than external coercion.

Brit - Covenant

BUT it is at this point that the Rabbi’s and the Torah’s conception of moral development departs from Piaget. For Piaget the highest level of the morality was absolute individual autonomy and sovereignty. He was likely influenced by enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant who sought to redeem the individual from the chains of the corrupt powers of church and state.  But the Torah recognises that autonomous morality can lead to what we call today subjective morality where responsible society is neglected in favour of radical individualism.

Thus, the Torah offers us an alternative model called ‘brit’. The idea of covenant is that we create a balance between divine authoritative law and internal conscience; between self-interest and interest of the whole.

Shmitta and 'Keri'

I want to return now to our original questions and this week’s parsha and suggest that the model we see in this week’s parsha is a paradigm necessary for a people at the start of their national journey. A model predicated on an understanding of action and consequence. When God suggests that we will be punished seven-fold, he is hinting to the seventh year of Shmitta that was mentioned in the previous parsha. As we discussed last week, the laws of Shmitta are not just laws about governing the land, they are central because they symbolise the TYPE of mindset that underpins a successful society.

In the Torah’s repetitive use of the word ‘keri’ – happenstance, it is also intimating a deep theological idea. According to Rashi Chizkuni and other commentaries the root of keri  is ‘mikre’ chance or happenstance. Rashi notes in Devarim 25:18 when speaking about Amalek who ‘happenstance’ along the way – that this means ‘keri’ – wasted seed – like chance/tumah.

What has Amalek have to do with this and why is the notion of chance being mentioned obsessively here when talking about sin and punishment?

Let us think for a moment about Piaget’s notion of moral development. We begin as children with a paradigm of sin and punishment – coercive orality or as Piaget call it heteronomous morality. We end with autonomous morality. In this week’s parsha we see the model of heteronomous morality. What I have suggested is that this is the first stage – but the ideal stage is once we have internalised the basic ideas from this narrative – the idea that our actions have consequences, the idea of shmitta – that we are RESONSIBLE to others and part of society that are not in our self-interest and that nothing is ‘chance’ keri – but rather part of a bigger picture. The Torah’s final stage of moral development is not total autonomous morality but rather what it calls covenantal morality – that is that we come to the world in RELATIONSHIP – that we understand that we are autonomous moral actors, that we are not coerced but rather that we CHOOSE of our own free will to ‘covenenat’ with God and do his work in the world. Ultimately the highest level is to understand that as much as we have faith in God, he has faith in us. That it is up to us to live in a conscious mindset of INTENTION, LOYALTY, and COMMITMENT to a higher vision of society and self.

So, to return to our original question – can the model of sin and punishment as set out in Bechukotai still apply and does it have any bearing on our reality today?

As I have shown I think the model in its original one-dimensional reading is an EARLY manifestation of a much larger trajectory which understands the covenenat as the development of our relationship with Hashem. I think what Parshat Bechukotai lays down is a FORMULA for covenantal living – part of that formula is an understanding that our actions have consequences and that we are meant to take responsibility. It is an early conception of the model where God is מתהלך  and where we need to see a direct relationship between our sins and the punishment.

As we grow up and our relationship with ourselves and God develops that model also develops. It seems that God wants to show us that we must have faith in our abilities to redeem reality and create a functioning society. To do that we have to nurture a certain mindset – a covenantal mindset. As Rabbi Carlebach was fond of saying – a child needs only one adult to believe in them. When we understand that God believe in us then we understand believe in ourselves.

I want to end with a narrative that is the earliest national formulation of this model – when Amalek attacks us- וקרך בדרך he attacks from behind – the weak are behind – we have not been fulfilling our responsibility to the weak in society which has left them vulnerable. We have questioned our own strength – היש ה בקרבנו  - is hashem not ‘around’ but WITHIN US – do we have the power to fight the mindset of dependency and mikre? How do we fight?

We battle on the ground but we keep our eyes above – we recognise that any battle in this world is a combination of belief in ourselves and our own strengths and also consequences of when we abdicate responsibility. But at the same time a conscious mindset of Divine awareness that teaches us that God believes in us and our power to defeat evil.  Piaget was right – we need to move from a heteronomous view of morality to an autonomous view of morality – only in that way are we truly free and only in that way will we be willing to truly uphold a moral law. But only through a conception of brit will it be sustainable on a national and global level. Because if it is not based on anything other than human freedom it will, as we have seen time and again, slide into the abyss.

So, in my opinion, our Parsha is comprised of two layers. The most simple reading sees sin and punishment as the rubric through which God ensures our obedience.

A deeper broader reading however, would view it as the first stage in the development of the people and its moral consciousness.

My prayer is that we do not return to a ‘child like’ conception of our mission and destiny and instead take agency of our reality to ensure we bring about the redemption speedily in our days,

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