Parshat Bechukotai opens with a statement of conditional love. God announces:
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם
“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them: I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. And I will grant peace in the Land, and you will lie down with no one to frighten [you]… I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people.”
BUT, God then says:
“If you do not listen to Me and do not perform these commandments,
then I too, will do the same to you; I will
order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases of hopeless longing
and depression. I will break the pride of your
strength and make your skies like iron and your land like copper. I will
incite the wild beasts of the field against you, and they will utterly
destroy your livestock and diminish you. Your roads will become desolate. I
will bring upon you an army, and you will be delivered into the enemy's
This ancient litany of curses, known as the Tochecha, encompasses physical and mental illness, natural disaster and war. These plagues exist in our own time, of course, and I think that’s partly why the curses of Bechukotai speak real fear into our modern ears. But for me, what’s most poignant in the Tochecha is a more subtle threat that appears towards the end of the list, when God announces:
“And those of you who survive I will bring fear into your hearts… the sound of a rustling leaf will pursue you; you will flee as one flees the sword, but there will be no pursuer.”
The feeling of being pursued in the absence of a pursuer – fear unrooted in fact – is something I’ve been reflecting on lately, as I’ve begun to pay closer attention to my own experiences of fear and fearfulness.
For me, fear lives in the belly, a lump of low-level dread. And sometimes, when I am particularly frightened of some imagined future, it radiates up into my throat.
When I first began examining this fear in therapy a couple years ago, my therapist asked me: “What are you afraid of?” And, without planning on it, without any conscious thought behind my answer, I opened my mouth, and I said: “I’m worried everyone I love will be taken away from me and killed.”
To be clear: My fear is utterly irrational, ungrounded in my actual experiences of life and loss. I grew up loved in a safe, middle-class home in Toronto, never persecuted for my religion, never experiencing war or trauma. But, but: I am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors.
In recent years, researchers have been working on better understanding something called epigenetic inheritance: the fact that an individual’s lived experiences can leave genetic alterations in their DNA that can get passed on to subsequent generations.
In one surprising study that confirmed the existence of epigenetic inheritance, researchers gave male lab mice electric shocks every time the mice were exposed to the smell of orange blossoms. The Pavlovian result was that the mice eventually grew to shudder at even a hint of the smell. This was predictable. The surprise, however, was that the children and grandchildren of these traumatized mice also instinctively feared the smell of orange blossoms, even though they had never received any shocks, any sort of negative conditioning.
Only last year, another study analyzed the genes of 32 Jews who had either been interned in a concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture, or who had had to hide during the Holocaust. It then analyzed the genes of their children and grandchildren, and found identical increased mutations for stress disorders in the survivors and their offspring.
It seems likely, then, that I didn’t only inherit my straight hair from my mother, or my light eyes from my mother’s father. I also inherited the memories of a trauma that I can never claim as my own. In the words of Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet, “I wasn’t one of the six million who died in the Shoah, I wasn’t even among the survivors. No, I was not in that number, though I still have the fire and the smoke within me, pillars of fire and pillars of smoke that guide me by night and by day.”
So: it seems I bear the bodily wounds of a trauma I never lived, always anticipating, on some level, an enemy who is not there.
In reflecting on the nature of fear – how it lives inside, how it feels in the body – I’ve noticed that fear can act like a horse’s blinders – preventing us from looking up, looking around, noticing the blessings of our lives. When we do not feel safe – when we are curled into ourselves like an involute – we can lose the ability to feel that we are blessed, even if our lives are awash in blessing.
So what is the way forward? How do we honour inheritance, without allowing ourselves to dwell indefinitely in fear?
I want to bring you back to the parsha – because I think it offers us two possible ways out of the darkness of ungrounded fear.
Bechukotai opens with a list of blessings. But being blessed is not enough. To counteract fear, we also need gratitude – but not facile gratitude, not running through the streets lobbing thank-yous like bouquets of flowers. True gratitude requires and invites us to stop, look up, and notice blessing – to not be so focused on the imagined fears of the present, on the future we are so frightened of. If we can get out of the fear long enough to be present, to notice that we are, actually, all right, we can unclench. And breathe.
So that’s one way out of fear – through seeing blessing, through light.
The other way is to engage with the dark.
In Hebrew, the word for curse is klala. But the root of this word – kuf lamed lamed, kalal – is also the Hebrew verb to burnish - to polish to a shine.
If we allow tragedy to touch us – to not always live in fear of rustling leaf and the imagined blow, but rather to unclench and let the sting and the sweetness wash over us as they come – we have the opportunity to be slowly transformed.
Loss and grief and sadness are the effects of our modern curses, and the cost that comes with loving people. But loss and grief and sadness offer us the opportunity to let life rub against us, wearing down our rough edges, our spikes that we pushed out in anticipation of pain. Life, if we let it, can polish us to a sheen. From the beauty of our burnished selves, we can shine and reflect light to others. And see ourselves more clearly, the darkness and the light that surrounds us.
~Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner, June 4, 2016