If you despise My laws and your soul spurns My rules, so that you do not observe all My mitzvot and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues. And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins. (Leviticus 26:15-18)
This is the kind of passage that sometimes leads people to conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible is vengeful and cruel. How could a loving and compassionate God threaten people with such misery for disobeying rules? A deeper reading, though, shows that the passage is not necessarily just a list of punishments to be meted out against transgressors. Rather, it can be read as a description of the natural consequences that follow when people choose to behave in ways that desecrate life.
We are told, when you bring misery to the people around you, do not be surprised when your own life is overtaken by misery—not because of thunderbolts from heaven, but because of the expectations and standards created by your own behavior. When you plant the seeds of enmity all around you, do not be surprised when people around you adopt hostile and aggressive behavior to your own detriment. This is derech eretz, the way of the world, and the Torah has the wisdom to teach us to be wary of it.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator on the Torah and Talmud, adds another insight to our understanding of the passage. Rashi says that the "sevenfold" discipline that will be suffered by malicious evil-doers is a reflection of their own sevenfold descent into sin. He says:
Behold, there are seven transgressions—the first begets the second, and so on to the seventh—and these are they: 1) Not to study God’s mitzvot. 2) Not to observe them. 3) To scorn those who do. 4) To despise the sages. 5) To prevent others from observing. 6) To deny the Divine origin of the mitzvot. 7) To deny the existence of God.
Rashi describes the internal process through which a person can harden his or her heart against wise and good behavior, and how that descent leads to the person's own misery. It begins with the failure to pay attention to the landscape of a moral universe. People who ignore the wisdom of accepting a moral authority outside of themselves will naturally begin to behave in bad ways and believe that those who behave well are dupes. That conviction will, over time, expand into a hatred of the entire belief system of those who seek wisdom from the teachings of the past, which leads to hatred of the past, and finally to hatred of belief itself. Rashi describes a slippery slope of psychological constrictions and hardenings that begins with the first intentional transgression.
To understand Rashi's point, think about the mitzvah to rest on Shabbat. Those who choose to ignore Shabbat and who have no interest in learning about it, obviously, will not observe it. Such people tend to justify their choice by viewing the mitzvah merely as an onerous and capricious restriction. That choice, in turn, makes it more difficult for them to open their minds to the possibility that the laws of Shabbat are actually intended for their own benefit—that by mandating rest, the Torah intends to guide them toward happier and more fulfilling lives.
“Why should I spend my time doing nothing,” they might ask, “when I could spend that time being productive?” They become trapped in a cycle of denying their own spiritual needs. Instead, such people tend to view those who do observe the mitzvah as "superstitious" or "ignorant," and may even come to believe that it is their duty or right to "teach" others not to observe the mitzvah. From that point, it is very likely that such people would deny that the mitzvot comes from a relationship with God and, ultimately, deny the very idea of God.
Finally, Rashi suggests that even when such people become trapped in misery caused by the failure to recognize that their lives have meaning beyond their own needs and desires, they will become hardened against pursuing their own happiness. Their conviction toward meaninglessness will prevent them from listening to the needs of their own spiritual being.
Each time a person begins to define a piece of wisdom as ridiculous, it places another brick in the wall that separates them, not just from the one mitzvah, but from entire categories of good life choices. A person who sees Shabbat as “wasted time” will begin to think of all time as a commodity—a thing that has only utilitarian value—and the possibility of the joy of sacred time will be diminished for that person. This rejection of whole categories of sanctity is one way of understanding Rashi’s warning against “despising the sages” — despising the very idea of living life wisely.
Within each mitzvah is the possibility that you will listen and grow more connected with the presence of Divinity in your life, or the possibility that you will ignore it, and place one more brick in the wall that separates you from awakening to spiritual experience. Living with this knowledge helps to transform the mitzvot from onerous obligations into opportunities for celebrating life’s joys.