“Life’s been good” Parashat Bechukotai 5778

For the unwashed few who have never heard of it, Apple Music is an incredibly large on-line music library containing nearly every song ever recorded. One of the nice features of Apple Music is that it learns your tastes and will suggest songs that you might enjoy hearing. Recently Apple Music suggested that I might like a song called “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh, formerly of the Eagles. Forty years ago, I used to love that song. I was so overjoyed to hear it again that I decided to incorporate it into a shiur.

“Life’s Been Good” is an apt description of the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai but the parashah rapidly deteriorates into a “Highway to Hell”[1]. The first twelve verses of the parashah describe blessings that Am Yisrael will merit if we listen to Hashem, keep His Torah, and perform His mitzvot. The next thirty-two verses form the “Tochecha” – the Admonition – a series of horrors that will, heaven forbid, befall us if we stray from the path that Hashem has delineated. The Tochecha strikes fear into the hearts of men. It is extremely graphic, describing how [Vayikra 26:29] “You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters” and [Vayikra 26:30] “Your corpses will [fall] upon the corpses of your idols”. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [31b] tells of a Sage who became so scared when he read the Tochecha that he began to stammer so badly that he had to be replaced.

Notice that the Tochecha contains nearly three times as many curses as the blessings in the verses that precede it, making the potential punishment seem far greater than the potential reward. Any risk-averse human would think twice about entering a deal like that. This line of thought bothered the Ibn Ezra and he offers a way ahead: “Certain empty-headed people have said that the curses are more numerous than the blessings. This is untrue. Rather, the blessings are given in general terms whereas the curses are given in detail in order to impress and to frighten the listeners. If you read carefully, what I have said will become evident.”[2] Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda says similar words but with a Hassidic lilt: “The psychology behind this phenomenon is to warn people of how much harm they will do to themselves if they do not follow the instructions and advice of the Torah to observe the commandments. We find a similar phenomenon at the revelation at Mount Sinai, when the attribute of Justice appeared as the awe-inspiring manifestation of thunder-lightning-smoke and trembling of the ground, whereas the attribute of Mercy was wrapped inside, not drawing attention to itself.” Psychologists have shown that the amount of pain experienced by a person after a loss is much greater than the amount of pleasure experienced after an equal gain. This principal forms the basis of Prospect Theory for which Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.[3] The Torah therefore emphasizes the potential loss rather than the potential gain in order to increase the chances of man staying in line.

While I am a great fan of Behavioural Economics, I would like to suggest another interpretation. Recall that Ibn Ezra said, “The blessings are given in general terms whereas the curses are given in detail”. What does he mean my “general terms”? Here are a few examples of the blessings:

  • “I will give peace in the land” [Vayikra 26:6]
  • “I will establish my covenant with you” [Vayikra 26:9]
  • “I will walk among you and I will be your G-d” [Vayikra 26:12]

None of these blessings are measurable. How will we know that Hashem has “established His covenant with us”? Can we perform an experiment that proves this? How can it be determined that Hashem is “walking among us” to a greater extent today than yesterday? Now that the US has pulled out of the JCPOA, is the world more or less peaceful? Any scientist will tell you that something that cannot be measured also cannot be corroborated. So at the end of the day, how do we know that Hashem has blessed us? This problem does not exist with the curses in the Admonition. They are “given with detail”: corpses, flesh, and beasts of the earth. Lions and tigers and bears. The curses appear with such detail that it is possible to map each of them to horrors that occurred during the destruction of the first and second Beit HaMikdash. Once again, the curses seem to trump the blessings.

Lately, psychologists have been spending much time and effort trying to understand the concept of “happiness”.[4]  Researchers are trying to define what happiness is, what its ingredients are, and how to measure it. The fact that happiness is subjective – what makes you happy might make me sad – makes things all the more difficult. It is generally agreed that there are two types of happiness: hedonic happiness and eudemonic happiness. Hedonic happiness is a function of a person’s instantaneous level of pleasure. It is concerned with short term, transient feelings of pleasure. It is influenced by moods or experiences, like drinking a good bottle of wine or watching the Giants kill – or be killed by – the Cowboys. Eudemonic happiness revolves around a person’s long-term satisfaction with his life. It is a reflection of how he sees his accomplishments and the choices he has made. Referring back to Parashat Bechukotai, it is clear that the blessings are eudemonic while the curses are hedonistic. This is the source of the problem with Ibn Ezra’s “empty-headed people”. They feel like they are comparing apples and oranges.

Joe Walsh can help us out here. In “Life’s Been Good” he tells us “My Maserati does one eighty five. I lost my license, now I don’t drive. I have a limo, ride in the back, I lock the doors in case I’m attacked”. How would we describe his life? Is he blessed or is he cursed? On the one hand, he can no longer drive his car. He hides in the back seat, fearful that one of his fans will smash open the window. On the other hand, the reason he lost his license is because he owns a $125,000[5] car that has a twin turbocharged 8-cylinder engine with the power of 520 horses under the hood. His fear of his fans is a direct result of his incredible popularity. He is truly a victim of his own success. The fact that his blessings are eudemonic while his curses are hedonic does not mean that he is not blessed. And this is exactly what Mr. Walsh tells us at the end of each verse: “Life’s been good to me so far”.

In the last verse before the Tochecha the Torah tells us [Vayikra 26:13] “I am Hashem, Who took you out of the land of Egypt from being slaves to them; I broke the bars of your yoke and led you upright.” The Hebrew word for “upright” – “komemi’ut” – appears nowhere else in the entire Tanach. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [75a] teaches, “In the future, the Jewish people will be two hundred cubits tall, equivalent to two times the height [komot] of Adam [whose height was one hundred cubits].” Another sage suggests that they will only be one hundred cubits tall. What is the message that the Talmud is conveying? Rav Saadiah Gaon explains the word komemi’ut as “free men”, and that Hashem is telling them “I broke the bars of your yoke and I made you free men”. Rav Saadiah – and the Talmud – are teaching us that while a slave has a limited line of sight, a free man stands tall, seeing clearly to the distant horizon. A slave can experience only hedonic happiness. He will never be satisfied with the fruit of his labour. Hashem freed us from slavery so that we could appreciate the blessings that appear before the Tochecha. He raised us to a level where we could appreciate eudemonic happiness, even while we are simultaneously experiencing hedonic unhappiness. Hashem never stops blessing Am Yisrael, and understanding this is the greatest blessing of all.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] Apple Music correctly detected that I like classic rock.

[2] The Ibn Ezra had little tolerance for people with double-digit IQ. Look at his commentary on Bereishit [29:17]. He sounds like George Bernard Shaw.

[3] Kahneman won the prize “for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty”.

[4] Daniel Kahneman is one of these psychologists.

[5] Data refers to a 2018 Maserati Quattroporte GTS GranLusso.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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