The Rebuke: Spiritual Abandonment
What is God?
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The average person out there knows very little of the Bible. Even those more knowledgeable, who are familiar with at least most of the text of the Chumash, start to get lost when it comes to Leviticus. There is a section at the end of the book that is so glossed over that almost nobody really knows it well. It is called the Tokhaha, or the Rebuke. Observant Jews hear this section once every year, so at least they can tell you where it is and give a quick summary of what it deals with. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally read quickly and in a low volume so people don’t have to hear the full brunt of it, assuming they could understand what it is really driving at.
It begins by very enthusiastically stating what happens if the covenant is followed. Everything will be great – the rain falls in its proper time, there will be peace throughout the land, enemies will flee before you, etc. But if the Israelites go the opposite route, if they refuse to listen to the commandments, and refuse to heed the steadily increasing affliction that comes upon them, all hell breaks loose. The purpose of both Tokhaha sections is to remind the Israelites and their future heirs that God means business in this covenant and will overlook transgression only for so long. At some point, people will have to answer for not sticking to the program.
There is one aspect of this Tokhaha that is particularly puzzling and somewhat shocking when fully understood. A few times in the long depiction of what happens when Israel doesn’t follow the will of Hashem, a curious phrase pops up. ‘If you walk with Me keri, and do not want to listen to Me, then I will add upon you blows that are seven times your sins’ (26:21). A few verses later the same phrase comes up: ‘And if with all this you aren’t chastised to Me, and you walk with Me keri; I also will walk with you in keri, and I will bring you again seven times your sins’ (v.23-24). Then the ante is upped even more: ‘And if you still don’t listen to Me and you walk with Me in keri; I will walk with you in wrathful keri, and I will punish you again seven times your sins’ (v.27-28). Finally, towards the end, when they are in exile in the lands of their enemies: ‘And they will confess their iniquities and the iniquities of their fathers with the deception that they deceived Me, and also that they walked with me in keri; So I will walk with them in keri and bring them into the land of their enemies, perhaps then your uncircumcised hearts will be humbled and then your iniquities will be accepted’ (v.40-41).
There is one central question on these verses: what does the word ‘keri’ mean? Once we answer that, we may have other questions, but this must be taken care of first. It happens that this is a classic case of a vague word in the Torah that has no definite translation. It is not easy to compare this word with similar words, though this is one of the common methods of interpreting it. Also, there is no firmly established tradition as to its meaning.
The first among the many translations is the Septuagint. There we find the translation ‘perverse’, meaning ‘if you walk perversely with Me – then I will walk perversely with you’. It has a connotation of going deliberately off course, almost spitefully. Next there is Onkelos who translated it as ‘in defiance’. Thus the intention is ‘if you walk with me in defiance – I will walk with you in defiance’. What is probably the best attempt at sticking to the root of the word is the translation of ‘happenstance’ or ‘haphazard’. The Hebrew root, which itself is vague, can mean ‘to happen’, as if by accident or coincidence. So the phrases with ‘keri’ are interpreted as ‘I you walk with me haphazardly, I will walk with you haphazardly’.
Now we can examine these verses with a little confidence. All translations clearly indicate not following Hashem. It’s just a matter of under what spiritual state are they when they choose this path. Is it due to and attitude of perversion, or defiance, or indifference? Of course, which translation we choose for the attitude of the Israelites, we must use the same attitude for how Hashem responds back. Perversion may fit fine in the Israelite towards Hashem direction, but it is difficult to understand in the reverse direction. Defiance works a little better there, but it is still tough to fathom how Hashem has such an attitude. What about the last one? How does the equation work – ‘if you are indifferent to Me, I am indifferent to you’?
How can God be indifferent to us? If God permeates all creation and if God’s presence is within everything, how could God not care about God’s presence? Obviously, at this point, we have to say a temporary goodbye to that whole image, and focus on a different image. We have already seen how the Guide of destiny left the world on a course that restricts major divine intervention, at least on a world scale. The personal image, however, the one the Bible calls Hashem, has been serving as the agent of this Guide and intervening at various points in the Bible. Is there any other way that this image can show its displeasure other than direct wrath?
Perhaps there is. Perhaps there is a less direct form of punishment. It is so indirect that it hardly deserves the term punishment. It is more of a ‘consequence’ than a punishment. It is analogous to a way a parent might punish a child for ignoring or disregarding the parent’s wishes as if they are unimportant. The parent may try a form of reverse psychology with the child. The parent may ignore the child – leave the child to his or her own fate, to some degree. It may take a while for the child to get the message, since the child may be under the impression that he or she is free to do whatever they want. But eventually, hopefully, that child will need the parent in some way that is more important than whatever freedom may have been gained, and the parent won’t be there. The intuitive child, however, understands that the parent’s actions are a direct consequence of the child’s attitude towards the parent.
This is what is happening here in the Torah. If we ignore God, if we treat God with an attitude of indifference, the consequence will be that we get a taste of our own medicine. How do we treat God with indifference? This is where the phrase ‘walk we Me in keri’ comes in. Walking with God is steering one’s life in such a way that God is an integral part of it. It is being conscious of God’s role in one’s life, both on an individual level and on an overall level. If it’s such a big deal, so all-encompassing, how could it possibly be done with indifference?
The word ‘keri’, according to the translation that we are using, is related to the word ‘happen’. It means that things just happen. They don’t necessarily happen for a reason, they just happen. It’s what we call coincidence or happenstance. To walk through life in ‘keri’ means to treat the happenings in one’s life as coincidences, as random occurrences that could just as easily have gone the other way. To walk with God in ‘keri’ means that even God’s role in one’s life is subject to the status of coincidence. ‘I am conscious of God’s role in my life. It is to make my life a series of random coincidences.’ What? God’s role is to make life a series of random coincidences? Who needs God for that? We could do it just as well without God altogether, so how do we explain this attitude?
It’s not easy to grasp, but it’s surprisingly common. It means thinking that God is there, somehow running the world, but that He doesn’t really know what He is doing. God is like a person having a dream. The events in the dream appear to be pretty haphazard. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between one thing and another. They just string along like blips on a screen with no apparent order or purpose. God is out there making this happen, but with no purpose or plan. Could it work just as well without God? Maybe, but this person thinks the randomness is the way that God does things. It’s the ultimate in meaninglessness. It’s not just meaningless because there is no God. It’s meaninglessness due to God.
What does the Torah say is God’s reaction to this attitude? At first, God dishes out a little classic punishment to correct this nonsense. When that doesn’t work and the person or group continues along the same path, God acts like the parent whose child ignores the caring role of the parent. God feigns ignorance on the world. God let’s things just roll along with no apparent plan. If one looks for some plan behind the randomness it cannot be detected. At some point it may hit ‘wrathful keri’ – randomness with a vengeance. This stage happens when the randomness seems so random that it seems like it must be deliberate. It simply couldn’t be this random if things were just let to go on their own. Things start happening that are unimaginable even under random conditions. All hell breaks lose with a vengeance. It is so random that it becomes impossible to see it as purely random.
This amazing sequence of events is what we could call spiritual abandonment. It is a two-step process. We abandon the notion of God running the world with a plan, and God slowly abandons the image of running the world with a plan. That image fades and another image grows. It is the image of a God who doesn’t care, who let’s thing go to pot. Spiritual abandonment is a cruel fate dished out by a God who cannot but feel anger and revulsion at the way He is being treated. It is a horrible feeling, one that leaves us hopeless and aimless, not giving a damn about what we do because it really doesn’t matter anyway. Even confession of one’s own spiritual failure doesn’t help, because it also seems deceptive and pointless. Spiritual abandonment is total.
Perceiving the Image
Who wants to perceive this image? Who wants a God that abandons them? This is just too harsh and too stark an image for any person with the least spiritual inclination to want any part of. No wonder some observant Jews read this section fast and quietly. No wonder it is so rare to hear this section quoted. People do not want to hear this kind of stuff. But there it is right at the end of Leviticus. Obviously it was meant to be heard and understood. It must be crucial that we perceive this image.
This image is perceivable in those moments of life when all seems lost and hopeless, when there just doesn’t seem to be any point in even attempting to straighten things out because they won’t get straightened out in the end. It may strike us not as an image of God, but as a picture of a world devoid of God. It is not easy to tell the difference. But even under these circumstances, it is important to see that there is a difference. A world with an indifferent God is a world with a God. It may not be the God that we want, but it is God nevertheless. There is an ironic benefit to this image. It enables us to perceive God even though circumstances make the more pleasant images of God invisible to us. We can see God even when we don’t really want to see God. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It can carry us through the darkest of times.
It just has to be asked why the Torah dares to suggest an image like this. Why is spiritual abandonment the appropriate consequence of treating God with an attitude of indifference?
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