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A Better Way to Understand Moral Consequences

May 22, 2019

 

 

If you are an Avenger fan, then by now you have surely seen the movie, Endgame.  And if not, then you won’t mind the spoiler.  Nebula, daughter of the evil psychopath Thanos, is suffering from misplaced hero worship of her father. 

 

Like many children trying to win conditional love, she tries in vain to prove her worthiness.  Eventually, however, she faces the truth that her father is, in fact, a monster, and she slays him – anticlimactically, however, as Thanos has already annihilated half of the population of the entire universe. 

 

So, Nebula travels back in time to try to change history when she comes face to face with herself.  The Nebula of the future argues futilely with the younger Nebula to see the light and get over her “daddy thing,” but she’s not psychologically ready to give up her dysfunctional stance.  At that point, future Nebula reluctantly kills off her younger self.   (If you ever wished that the older and wiser you could travel back in time to guide your clueless self, you can rest assured it probably would not have gone well.) 

 

As my husband and I debriefed this 3-hour movie, I posed what I thought was a good question: “So, if Nebula traveled through time and killed herself in the past, how could she still be alive in the future/present?  She wouldn’t exist.”  “You don’t understand time travel,” my husband answered, “you never did.”  True that, but I had seen enough movies to know that either you can’t change the past, or if you do alter any event, then the whole future course of history would unfold differently.   “Don’t you remember what Iron Man said about that?” my husband replied, “Back to the Future and all of those time travel movies were wrong.  They were based on an old and incorrect theory.”  “Wait – let me get this straight.  You’re making fun of me, and you are seriously quoting Iron Man - a Super Hero movie character -  as your new authority on the science of time travel?   Do you not see how incredibly funny that is?”   Shaking his head at my obtuseness, my husband retorted, “You just don’t understand quantum physics.”  He had me there.

 

So, what does any of this have to do with this week’s parsha, Bechukosai?   For 3 hours, we sat in a dark theater absorbed in a movie portraying a specifically created reality.  And in that “reality,” among other things, raccoons can talk and commandeer space vehicles.  Yet, we don’t sit in our seats shaking our heads, mocking what we are seeing as unbelievable.  Instead, we enjoy the immersion into a wholly different paradigm, which has its own internal logic and rules that make complete sense (if you understand quantum physics).   With the universal master plots, themes, and familiar characters, it’s a very relatable reality.  So much so, many of us probably wished it were true; after all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where Super Heroes keep us safe from evil? 

 

And Now, An Uncomfortable or Inspiring Truth – Depending on How You Look at It

 

Newsflash: We live in a created reality.  But unlike the rolling credits that list the hundreds, if not thousands of people who participated in the creation of the movie, our created reality credits only one Name: G-d.  We live in a world that He created.  Torah, the guidebook to navigate this created reality, explains the very nature of that existence.  But we don’t always like it.   In a culture indoctrinated with avoidance of that which causes discomfort, some of the passages of Bechukosai are downright terrifying: 

 

If you will not listen to Me and will not fulfill My commandments, if you despise my statues and your souls despise My laws…thereby breaking My covenant, then I will do the same with you.  I will impose terror upon you…I will set my Face against you and you will be defeated before your enemies…. (Leviticus 26:14-17)

 

The Risk-Avoidant Life

 

In this created reality, it sure sounds like G-d is using fear to induce obedience.  Many, in fact, point to such passages to justify their contempt of Torah observance.  After all, what kind of a   G-d resorts to threats of terror and violence to engender compliance?  Although I was not exposed to Torah until my mid-thirties, my former “understanding” of G-d more or less was that He was out to “get me.”  The best I could hope for, therefore, would be to be ignored by G-d, and so I tried to fly under the G-d radar, so to speak, and not make Him too mad.  How sad – for the both of us! 

 

Trying to stay safe and being risk avoidant is not just an unfulfilling way to live; it’s not how we were designed, and it is out of alignment with created reality.  The thought or hope that we could ignore our spiritual contract and covenant with G-d – and there not be any attendant consequences – is to try to live in a reality of one’s own making.   And that’s not real.   

 

Truth or Consequences 

 

When I was a kid, we were either “bad” or “good;” thus we were punished for good behavior and rewarded for bad.  These days, the word I hear parents using to control their children is “consequence.” As in, “If you don’t do - or not do - some version of what I am requesting you’re going to get a consequence.”  As parents try to create reality for their children, the trick is to employ this device in a rational and believable manner.  And so, the consequence should be related sensibly to conduct, so that they learn how cause and effect usually manifest in our created world.  (Note: I am not addressing questions of theodicy in this blog.)

 

I’ve noticed that “consequences” tend to be the unwanted kind, but to be consistent, they should be for good things also.  Just as parents genuinely want their children to act in a way that good consequences follow their behaviors, so does G-d want us to benefit and enjoy good consequences as well.  In the reality that HE created, blessings, abundance, peace flow as a natural consequence of us living in harmony and grooving in the world He designed.  If we override the system or use it in unintended ways, we will cause consequences that we don’t like. 

 

For example, I just bought a hand-held garment steamer.  I can’t believe how silly some of the warnings are.  No one, I think, would ever do some of the inane and farfetched behaviors described – except for one.  “Do not use the steamer on people.”  Hmmm, depends - define “people.”   Anyway, the point is that if I used the steamer correctly, I will get wrinkle-free clothes.  If I do not, I might inadvertently burn myself with hot steam.  Neither a reward; nor a punishment – just a consequence.    

 

Moral Consequences

 

In Bechukosai, G-d is not threatening us into obedient subservience; rather, He is explaining the nature of His created reality.   If we disconnect ourselves from the very source of life, then it doesn’t look pretty.  A few years ago, I did a stint of work on Fosamax femur-fracture litigation.  Ironically, the very drug prescribed to strengthen bones was causing traumatic fractures to the femur (the hardest bone in the body) when elderly women were doing simple activities - like getting up from the couch.  I was fascinated with the x-rays showing these broken femurs  because in these x-rays I saw a metaphor for my relationship with G-d.  

 

Disconnect a bone from its source of life, and the results can be life-threatening.   For a soul designed to be in a loving relationship with G-d, a break in that relationship can have traumatic consequences.  Note the word – consequence.  Created with free-will, we can opt out and live in a purely physical world, or a world which we think we can control, morality which we believe we can define, and rules to live by.  Like a bit actor in a movie who wants “artistic control.” And G-d lets us do that.  But not with indifference.  The parent who can’t give the keys to the car to a teen with a drinking problem, for example, is heartbroken, for loving parents want nothing more than to give to their children.  

 

I don’t understand quantum physics and please don’t ever try to explain it to me.  But I’m not so arrogant and ignorant to disbelieve that it exists.  You won’t find me saying something idiotic like, “Yea, I just don’t buy into that.” G-d created a Holy Reality, which doesn’t depend on your buy-in to make it true.   But He wants you to understand that it is so.

 

What’s At Stake?

 

Everything – simply everything – is on the line.  In case you haven’t noticed, the world that man creates can be a pretty heinous place.  If we live as designed, in G-d’s created reality, we can create heaven on earth.  Or, we can reject G-d, override the system, disconnect from the source of life and ultimate truth, and create a living hell.  Kill Thanos, and we are not safe, for hundreds more eagerly more take his place.  The dire warnings of Bechukosai come from the place of the deepest love imaginable.  And right now, the stakes couldn’t be higher.             

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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