Anxiety: A Jewish Telegram

The first curse described in this portion hinders our ability to listen — even to ourselves.

Commentary on Parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34

When I was a teenager, I liked horror movies. Maybe because there was nothing in the world I was really scared of. I enjoyed the thrill of fear. But as an adult, and especially as a parent, I don’t need horror movies to experience fear. The world today is scary enough. I’d much rather a movie with a happy ending.

So, when approaching the horrible curses and punishments that are laid out in two sections of Torah (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) I’m inclined to stick to the first ones in each section, which are tamer than the horrors of the later curses that will befall us if we still don’t repent after the first punishments. These punishments explicitly employ a theology of reward and punishment — God will reward us collectively if we follow God’s commandments and punish us collectively if we do not. If this does not sound exactly to you like the way the world you experience works, that’s OK. We do not need to subscribe to this kind of theology to be attentive to the messages the Torah and its interpreters may be teaching from these texts.

“I will appoint beh-hala over you” is the very first punishment the Torah threatens in the Leviticus edition of the curses (Leviticus 26:16). Beh-hala is variously translated as misery, terror, panic or shock. It has the sense of being scared, suddenly, without knowing what to do, suggests Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164). This terror and confusion makes it hard to understand, to listen, to heed, adds Rabbi Moshe Alshich (Turkey, 1507-1593). When we’re scared, our fight-or-flight response kicks in. We may freeze or run or lash out, but when we’re scared, we’re bad listeners. We can rarely even understand what’s going on around us and inside us.

Study and meditation can settle our restless minds, observes Rabbi Chayyim ibn Attar (Morocco, 1696-1743) in his Torah commentary, “Or HaChayyim.” But this curse is the opposite of that settled state of mind, he points out. This curse of terror corresponds to the blessing 10 verses earlier that says, “You shall lie down untroubled by anyone” (Leviticus 26:6), argues Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach (aka Chizkunee, France, 13th century). Because of this terror, we won’t be able to get a good sleep.

Alternatively, this curse may correspond to the upright, erect way God made us walk when we left Egypt (Leviticus 26:13) — a way of walking that embodies security, suggests Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888). This curse is about feeling helpless, dominated, and lacking self-confidence, Hirsch explains.

Notice what each of these rabbinic interpretations has in common — nothing has actually happened to us — we only have these feelings of terror, anxiety and confusion. But as anyone who experiences anxiety regularly knows, regardless of the basis in reality for the anxiety, the feeling is all too real and paralyzing. But we probably would rather have the feeling only, without actually having anything of which to be scared. That’s why this is but the first of the curses, the classic joke about the Jewish telegram: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”

Picture a line, a continuum, with the blessings on one side and the curses on another side. This curse is the first on the bad side, and yet, we may not have the perspective to realize we’ve crossed over, that we’re not still receiving blessings. In fact, the panic and confusion of this curse is often misinterpreted and misunderstood as a blessing, writes Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (Eastern Europe/Israel, 1881-1966) in his Torah commentary Oznaim LaTorah. The impatience we have with everything — for him, in his day, with wagons and increasingly with trains, and eventually, he predicts, rather presciently, with air travel, is a symptom of this curse. All the things that allow us to do things faster while decreasing and depleting our attention span and patience are not a product of human ingenuity, but rather, a manifestation of this curse.

And don’t worry—Rabbi Sorotzkin diagnoses a cause for this curse. It’s because of impatience and perfunctoriness in worship of and service to God and God’s commandments. Put slightly differently, if we lose our patience in paying attention to the things that really matter, we’ll become increasingly distracted and unable to pay attention to anything. We’ll flit from task to task, window to window, screen to screen. It sounds a lot like my experience of trying to write this d’var Torah!

Our confusion, our anxiety, our impatience and inability to focus may be a warning, the canary in the coal mine, the very first indication that something is not quite right. The drift and momentum will continue to push us further down this path, onward toward the next curse. Maybe though, with some effort, some focus, and attention, and crucially, some slowing down, individually and collectively, we can start moving in the other direction, toward blessings.

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