Sunday, January 31, 2010


The word behala is a cross between fright, shock, confusion and dread. It connotes total lack of control over one's environment and the unnerving, unsettling feeling that imparts. Behala is found in many psalms, and many places in the Bible. It is presented as a punishment of the most severe accord in the section of curses in Leviticus. In chapter 26 verse 16, after presenting the rewards for following in the path of the laws of God and then warning not to stray from that path and end up mocking, ignoring and humiliating the name of God, the Torah begins a litany of curses aimed at paralyzing our minds and bodies.

אַף-אֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה-זֹּאת לָכֶם וְהִפְקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם בֶּהָלָה אֶת-הַשַּׁחֶפֶת וְאֶת-הַקַּדַּחַת מְכַלּוֹת עֵינַיִם וּמְדִיבֹת נָפֶשׁ וּזְרַעְתֶּם לָרִיק זַרְעֲכֶם וַאֲכָלֻהוּ אֹיְבֵיכֶם
"I shall also do this to you by raining down upon you the 'behala' and the diseases of consumption and fever, failing eyes, and languishing soul, you will sow your seeds in vain and your enemies will eat it."

The diseases of consumption and fever and opthalmological problems we understand, but what of this behala? Should the first curse, the first punishment for the unrepentant sinner be behala?

Yes! The terror one feels at losing control of a situation, of losing sight, of utter confusion strikes a fatal blow to man's capacity to survive and sustain. As long as we have some semblance of control, we can endure the suffering. Once we lose that, we enter the world of behala.

Behala occurs when events before us defy logic.
When a brother we killed turns up as the devising evil viceroy of Egypt, "velo yachlu laamod lifnei Yosef ki nivhalu mipanav" An they could not stand before their brother Joseph for they experienced behala.
When a rundown group of slaves manages to uproot the great empire of Egypt: "az nivhalu elufei edom eile moav" Then the generals of Edom and Moav experienced Behala.

Finally, it is found in the mouth of David and the psalmists to reflect their state of utter terror at their loss of control. Psalm 6 depicts this behala in two realms:
רפאני ה' כי נבהלו עצמי, ונפשי נבהלה מאד ואתה ה' עד מתי
Heal me God for my bones are affrighted (behala) and my soul is in a state of bewilderment (behala).

David in psalm 6 has lost control. The psalm we use as our tachanun attempts to impart the feeling that while most of the time we put on a facade of control and confidence, once in a while we confess that we are confused, unsure, bewildered and disoriented. This can either be a result of a physical malady which strikes us (nivhalu atzamai) or a psychological or spiritual malaise which frightens us (nafshi nivhala).

David acknowledges the curse of behala as it grips his essence and paralyzes his senses. It almost prevents him from functioning at all, but something raises him from the mire--his relationship with God.

Ultimately he overcomes his own demons and reconnects with God to assert control over his destiny and over his enemies. "yevoshu ve'yibahalu meod kol oyvai" A day will come when my enemies will retreat in abject fear and chaos (yibahalu), they will experience the dread of behala.