In Parashat BeChukotai, the Torah presents the great reward received for following the Torah’s path, as well as the terrible, painful consequences of straying from it. The Tochachah, the rebuke and subsequent list of punishments given to Bnei Yisrael, leaves us feeling dejected and even uninspired to follow in the His ways. What lesson can we learn from the Tochachah that will help us grow, rather than leave us devastated and broken?
The main purpose of the Tochachah is to teach Bnei Yisrael that there are consequences for every decision. These consequences can be positive or negative. For example, if a person chooses to eat something, there is a reaction: certain nutritional gain or harm is caused by eating that food. When someone makes a business decision, there are ramifications and consequences for those choices as well. Consequences are not inherently bad; rather, they are a fundamental part of living. As we mature, we become more aware of the inevitability of consequence. The longer it takes someone to come to terms with this idea, the more anguish is suffered and the harder it becomes to understand and internalize this concept.
A student of mine was recently frustrated by an experience that left him feeling judged and hurt. This student was not able to join a certain group due to the decisions he had made earlier in his life. He complained of this injustice and argued that there was a disconnect between his earlier decisions and the consequence of those choices which were only coming to fruition now. After speaking to many different people, he was finally able to see the correlation. Rabbi Adler, the Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Academy of Bergen County, explained to him that if a player who entered the NFL Draft had three great seasons in college but a poor senior year, inevitably, his draft stock would drop. This Mashal prompted the student to later tell me that he felt he needed to accept the consequences in his life for the choices he made. He added that he felt so good about this realization that it liberated his frustrations and equipped him with the ability to take greater responsibility and, in effect, control of his life. As Dr. Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Traveled (p. 15), “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” Much of life’s difficulty is merely accepting that life presents challenges. Nonetheless, it is the realization of life’s difficulty that allows us to grow.
Often we might feel that religious beliefs are a matter of personal choice or subjective opinion, as if religion presents a smorgasbord of options that one can pick and choose equally. How often do we worry if a student is failing a class, not making friends, or not working hard? All of these are reasons for concern and in no way should we act casually towards them by not addressing them. However, when students or people do not believe in Hashem or are no longer committed in some way to Mitzvot Bein Adam LeMakom, there is often a feeling of this being a matter of personal space and choice. While we cannot and should not force people to share our religious views, the feeling and concern must nevertheless be there. In addition, we do not have the ability to judge or understand people’s choices and therefore must be understanding. At the same time, though, we must realize that the Torah has real consequences, and the choices we make regarding our commitment to the Torah stay with us forever. The Tochachah allows us to wake up to the reality that life can be difficult at times and that there are not only bad consequences, but beautiful ones as well. The consequences for Davening are tremendous. The consequences for learning are enormous. The consequences for giving Tzedakah, for abstaining from Sha’atneiz, for following a Chok are massive. We cannot forget that just as there are negative consequences for our choices, we have incredible ones as well. “Im BeChukotai Teileichu Ve’et Mitzvotai Tishmoru Va’asitem Otam,” “If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them” (VaYikra 26:3). If we follow in Hashem’s ways, He will send us Berachah, Hatzlachah, and Shefah. The Tochachah’s purpose is to teach us that, indeed, every action has a reaction, and every choice has a consequence. The Torah is not an extra credit assignment that we may choose to follow. It is the very curriculum that all of our education and existence is predicated on, as the Torah states, “VeChai Bahem,” “And you shall live by them” (18:5). We must all come to appreciate the greatness of our choices to follow in the ways of the Torah in order to ultimately receive all of the Berachot that Hashem promises will follow.