Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.
This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, is not for the faint of heart. Just when you think God might be mellowing out a bit, He comes out swinging.
No more pleasant talk about holiness and respect. We’re done with helpful messages about treating each other fairly and honoring all the people we know.
Basically, this week, God goes Old Testament on your tuchus.
It starts out easily enough. We read that if we faithfully obey God’s commandments, everything will be great. We will get just the right amount of rain at the proper times so that our crops will grow, our cattle will survive, and our basements won’t flood. In fact, we will have so much to eat and such plenty that we will have to start throwing away some stored food just to make room for the new. The Jewish people will emerge victorious over all enemies and will multiply and become numerous throughout the world.
Sounds fantastic. What’s the catch?
The next sentence starts with God saying, “But if you do not obey me and observe all my commandments, and if you reject my laws, then I in turn will do this to you …”
And oh boy, are we in for it.
What follows is a section that is called the toch’cha, or “warning.” It consists of paragraph after paragraph of the most horrible, devastating, and chilling descriptions of all the misfortunes and calamities that will befall the Jewish people if they become unfaithful to God.
Wild beasts will run freely throughout our streets savaging everyone and everything. Pestilence will wipe out families. There will be no food to eat and people will have to resort to cannibalism.
And then, just to make sure that everyone has learned their lesson, the Jewish people will be scattered forever and will disappear from the earth.
Wow! That’ll teach you who’s in charge. It’s like “Scared Straight” for the biblical crowd.
I would guess that underneath all of this harsh and terrifying language is something that all parents and kids can relate to. Parents constantly use the threat of punishment to get their kids to listen and follow directions. Sometimes they paint a picture of dangerous consequences in order to frighten their children into obeying the rules.
So this Torah portion, even with its over-the-top threats of unthinkable penalties and punishments, makes all of us ask these very simple questions: Does it work? Is this the best way to get people to follow the rules? If you want b’nei mitzvah kids to begin to make sense of the world around them and develop a moral and ethical way of life, do you hold the threat of annihilation over their heads?
Put another way, do kids respond to constant dire warnings or do they eventually tune out the message and the messenger?
Bar and bat mitzvah kids and their families can look at this Torah portion as a model on how best to make future decisions on Jewish observance. For instance, it’s unlikely that young teens will be convinced to follow the rules of keeping kosher because God will smite them down if they don’t. Instead, they might choose to embrace Jewish observances by being taught about their beauty and meaning.
Parshat Bechukotai teaches all of us — parent and child — that sometimes the carrot is a much better idea than the stick. And it sure beats cannibalism.
Previous week’s parshas:
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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