Behukotai — Scared Straight

This week’s parasha has to be the most difficult Torah reading of the entire year. It is the final chapter in the Book of Leviticus. The Jewish people are still settled around Mount Sinai. They have been given many of the commandments that they are to follow as they look forward to leaving their encampment at Mount Sinai and setting out for the Promised Land. The parasha begins well enough by outlining the blessings that the Jewish people will receive once in the land if they follow G-d’s laws. There will be abundant rains in their due seasons, and the crops will be bountiful. They are assured they will be able to defend the land, even if they are outnumbered. If they follow G-d’s commandments there will be peace throughout the land. G-d’s presence will dwell among the people. The Jewish people will live in freedom undisturbed by foreign domination.
As the saying goes, “It doesn’t get any better than that”. Peace and prosperity await the society that follows G-d’s ways. But the Torah does not leave it at that. The Torah proceeds to warn of the consequences of failing to follow G-d’s laws. If we fail to follow G-d’s laws, the Torah threatens that fever and illness will come upon the Jewish people. Our enemies will dominate us and there will be no escape. If we continue to fail to follow G-d’s laws, then the land will not yield its produce. There will be wild beasts run amuck that will attack our children and wipe out our livestock. The Torah doesn’t stop there! If we still persist in ignoring G-d people will be so hungry they will resort to cannibalism; cities will be laid waste, religious sanctuaries will be destroyed. Finally, if the Jewish people continue to ignore G-d’s ways, the people will be scattered among the nations, and the land will become desolate.

What is the purpose of all of these curses? Apparently, G-d does not feel that rewards and incentives — the blessings — are enough to encourage the Jewish people to act in accordance with G-d’s will once they enter the Land of Israel. The Torah assumes that draconian threats are also necessary to keep the Jewish people “in line”. In addition to offering rewards, the Torah tries to frighten the people into following G-d’s laws by laying out a vision of the punishments in store if they do not “walk in G-d’s ways”.

Is this good educational policy? Can one frighten people into behaving properly by describing the dire consequences of going down the wrong path in life? Many of you might remember the “Scared Straight” programs that were established in the 1970s in the United States in order to deter juvenile crime. At risk youth would be brought to adult prisons where they toured the prison, lived the life of a prisoner for a full day, and heard about the harsh reality of prison life directly from the inmates themselves. The hope was that experiencing the cruel conditions of prison life for a day would convince at risk youth to avoid actions which could lead them to become inmates themselves. They would be “scared straight”.

It seems like the same strategy is being pursued in the Torah. Show people the consequences of their wayward actions, the Torah seems to be saying, and they won’t engage in what are ultimately self-destructive behaviors. It doesn’t work. When the “Scared Straight” program was evaluated by social scientists, they found that participants in the program were a third more likely to engage in criminal activity than those of a similar background who did not participate in the program. In a report to Congress in 1997, the “Scared Straight” program was placed in the “What does not work” category. It turns out that we cannot frighten at risk kids into being law abiding citizens. Nor could Moses, judging from the next book of the Torah, frighten the Jewish people into obeying G-d’s will.

What does research tell us works with at-risk juveniles? Mentoring programs have been found to be effective in reducing levels of delinquency, substance use and academic failure. Personal relationships that last at least 12 months are effective in improving self-esteem, social skills, and outlook about the future. Personal contact with positive role models provide far more benefit than scaring young people with negative experience.

These insights from recent past, as well as the insights from the Torah, can also help us in educating and encouraging our children to follow a Jewish way of life as they become adults. We need to emphasize the rewards of being Jewish. Relationships with role models who are passionate about their Judaism – rabbis, cantors, teachers, and camp counselors, as well as other important adults in their lives are the best way for our children to form and maintain rich Jewish identities for life. Many of us baby-boomers grew up with guilt as being the prime motivator of our Judaism – the guilt of betrayal of our ancestors, the guilt of betrayal of the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust – guilt which would hopefully keep us within the Jewish fold. This kind of negative motivation cannot work in today’s world.

We need not, and cannot, “scare” our kids into being Jewish. We can, however, offer them warm relationships with committed Jewish adults, a sense of belonging to a noble and ancient people, and a set of values that will help them to make sense of our complicated lives. If they recognize these blessings of being Jewish, they will surely follow in G-d’s ways.

Shabbat Shalom