Parshat Bechukotai: “The Ghosts of Fallen Leaves”

Eventually you will see that the real cause of problems is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes the problems.
— Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself

Of the many fears that haunt us, the most callous of all is the fear of something imagined. A fictitious fear that cloaks itself in ghoulish delusions - an insidious thought or memory - one that draws us in and uproots us. The best description by far comes from author J.K Rowling's world of magic and wizardry in the Harry Potter series. Throughout these books, we read about a creature termed a "Dementor."

“‘If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.’ They ‘freeze your insides’ and most importantly: ‘they don’t need walls’ to keep their prisoners, their prisoners become ‘trapped inside their own heads.’” [1]

And that's just it. These wraithlike creatures that are referred to as "soul-sucking fiends," feed on one's thoughts and recollections to project a nightmarish fantasy - “they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them.” Having encountered a dementor, Ronald Weasley remarks, "I felt weird, like I'd never be cheerful again." Which just so happens to sum up what our very own God has in store for the Children of Israel if they "slip up" when they get to the promised land.

In parshat Bechukotai, we read a litany of curses that are to befall the Children of Israel for neglecting God’s commandments, laws, and statues - the list is long - and rife with physical ailments. And while these punishments are cruel and repulsive, they fall short before worst affliction of all: mental anguish. Because, while the body can recover, “awe, fright, worry, trembling, and fear” are frequently permanent fixtures in consciousness. They endure as traumatic stress induced scars. They disorient us. They turn us into, as Rowling would say, “a shell of a human being.” As we read in our text:

“As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues.” [2]

In a story concerning R. Yehoshua ben Karchah, he explains this curse - this notion of “the sound of a driven leaf” in detail:

“Once we were sitting between the trees and the wind started blowing and dashed the leaves against each other — whereupon we arose and ran, saying (to ourselves): ‘Woe unto us if we are overtaken by the horsemen!’ After some time we turned around and found no one there — whereupon we sat down and cried, saying ‘Woe unto us, upon whom has been fulfilled the verse ‘and they will be chased by the sound of a driven leaf, and they will flee as one flees the sword’ — from fright — ‘and they will fall though none pursue’ — from powerlessness.” [3]

Meaning, the enemy is an imagined one. God plagues them anxiety and paranoia. “That the reason they are fleeing is not because of an enemy killing them, but because of the great fear in their hearts.” [4] As described by Rabbi David Kasher, “After their pathetic moment of panic, the rabbis suddenly realize that the danger isn’t outside of them, but a feeling within. The leaf here isn’t just a metaphor for their own frailty and oppression. It becomes the phantom oppressor itself, the little noise in the night which is mistaken for approaching monsters. But the monsters don’t exist anymore; they’re only in our heads.” [5]

“The sound of a driven leaf.” This phrase resonates with me because this word “nadaf,” in this context, literally means “be driven about.” Like a leaf driven by the wind. Which our idiom in English, “You’re driving me crazy!” has the same meaning. Thus, the question becomes: Who sits behind the wheel of our minds holding the reigns to "peace, hope, and happiness"? Just as quickly a leaf is blown by a gust of wind, are we merely reactive carpoolers in our own thoughts, attention, and responses? Who is driving whom? As Rabbi Kasher points out, these monsters are “only in our heads.” Meaning, God doesn’t need any spooky things that go bump in the night. Because the most feared enemy that God places before us is our own rampant mind! “They shall fall though none pursues.”

When we let the dementors in our minds sweep through our thoughts - causing commotion that sends us scurrying about in panic - we genuinely have succumbed to the worse of God’s curses. Which is really to say that before we let small rustles drive our focus - controlling us - sucking us into paranoia and despair - pause and ask yourself: Are you the one driving or are you being driven?

One must elevate, not degrade, oneself by one’s own mind. The mind alone is one’s friend as well as one’s enemy. The mind is the friend of those who have control over it, and the mind acts like an enemy for those who do not control it.
— Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6:5-6

[2] Leviticus 26:36
[3] Sifra, Bechukotai 7:3-4
[4] Siftei Chakhamim, Leviticus 26:36:2
[5] Driven Mad – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Aaron Sataloff