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Then I (G-d) will remember My covenant with Jacob; I will also remember my covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the Land…(26:42).
These are the opening words of consolation at the end of the Tochacha - the words of dire warning from the Almighty to the Israelites of what would happen if they failed to obey His commandments. However, the following questions present themselves:
The Ramban develops in detail the theme that the two Tochachot refer to two different periods. The first, in Parashat Bechukotai, refers to the Destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile. The second, in Parashat Ki-Tavo, predicts the conditions at the Fall of the Second Temple under the Romans. The Ramban proves his theme by looking at the different punishments in the two Tochachot. For example, "Then the land shall make up for its Sabbaths" (26:34), in the first Tochacha refers to Babylonian Exile: the seventy years of Exile between the two Temples paralleled the seventy Shemitta years that were not kept during the First Temple period. By contrast, in the later Tochacha it states, "G-d will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the Earth to the other end of the Earth" (Deut. 28:64). This forecasted Titus' taking the captives of Israel and spreading them in many countries, taking the younger ones captive and leaving their elders to weep, as it says, "Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, and your hand will be powerless" (ibid. 28:32).
Taking the Ramban's general theme further, it seems possible to suggest that the Torah contains a third Tochacha, which, in fact, Rashi (above) states was the harshest of all the curses. To quote more fully:
My anger will flare against (the Israelites) on that day and I will forsake them. I will hide My face from them and they will become helpless prey, and many evils and distresses will befall them. (Each Israelite) will say, "Is it not because G-d is not in (my) midst that those evils have come upon me?" I will have surely hidden My face on that day because of all the evil that (the Israelite nation) did, because it had turned to the gods of others (Deut. 31:17-18).
Perhaps G-d did 'hide His face' some 671 years after the Ramban's death. The question people ask about the Shoah is, "How could G-d let such unimaginable suffering and bestiality befall His people?" Recall that this took place in a background of a century of unprecedented acculturation, assimilation, and intermarriage. And the familiar explanation to Jewish suffering - 'because of our sins' - seems inadequate in the light of the many assimilated people who managed to avoid or were not involved in the Holocaust, whilst the Torah scholars most loyal to our traditions suffered out of all proportion to their numbers. My teacher, R. Moshe Schwab ztl. would say, "with faith there are no questions, without faith there are no answers". But, at the time of writing we still do not know why G-d imposed the Shoah in the way He did and on the people He selected.
In the light of this discussion, there appear to be three Tochachot in the Torah. Each refers to a specific period and situation, then in the future.
It could follow that the covenants with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham mentioned above refer to each of the three periods discussed - and in that order: the Destruction of the First Temple, the Destruction of the Second Temple, and the Destruction of the Six Million. This is explained below.
Jacob's main personality strength was emet - truth (Micah 7:20) - though he had to submit truth to higher causes when the situation justified it. Isaac's personality attribute was gevura - strong commitment to the service of G-d - up to the very limit of being prepared to surrender his life to His service (Gen. 22:8 - see Rashi ad loc.). Abraham's forte was chesed (Micah ad loc.) - kindness and respect and concern for others, but that was disciplined to having to take firm action with Hagar and Ishmael (ibid. 21:9-14).
All the Patriarchs set examples to the Israelite nation. They used their middot (personality traits) to serve Him. However each exile misused those personality traits.
The First Exile was to a great extent connected with idol worship. As Ezekiel put it:
I poured My anger on them because of the blood that they poured on the Land, and they contaminated it with their idols (Ez. 36:18).
They no doubt sincerely believed in the 'truth' and efficacy of idol worship - perhaps influenced by the apparent prosperity of the nations who practiced it. But their truth, in sharp contrast to that of Jacob, was misplaced.
The Second Exile was, according to the Talmud, because of groundless hatred. Jews individually had gevura - the will to serve G-d in the most adverse circumstances. However, unlike Isaac, they took this so far that they neglected personal respect in the process.
The Shoah took place in what was to a great extent a period of emancipation. Jews had been enjoying rights and opportunities amongst the Gentiles that would have been undreamed of in previous generations. They, in fact, had done the, 'chesed' of greatly advancing the welfare of the many nations in which they found themselves. Unlike Abraham, many of the Jews of that period did submit their 'integration' to the Will of the Almighty…
This then explains the conclusion of the Tochacha. The verse may be understood as follows:
"Israelites, after each exile I will remember the merits of the respective Patriarch you should have followed, but you did not. 'I will remember My covenant with Jacob', - after the First Exile. 'And also My covenant with Isaac', - after the Second Exile. 'And I will also remember My covenant with Jacob', - after the Shoah. Then afterwards, 'I will remember the Land' - refers to our times when Israel is once more becoming a 'land of milk and honey'".
May Mashiach Tzidkeinu come speedily in our own days!
PARASHAT BECHUKOTAI - QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES
1. Blessings are mentioned briefly, with little detail. Curses are described graphically, and at length. Why, according to Ibn Ezra, is that so?
2. Why, according to the Ramban, are the rewards and punishments described in the Parasha earthly and materialistic, rather than spiritual and in the World to Come?
3. 'If you do not perform "all" these commandments' (26:14). What is the significance of the word "all" according to the S'forno?
4. What message is given to those who conquer and settle the Holy Land when the Israelites are exiled - following the text according to Rashi?
5. 'Those who remain', say the Curses, 'shall disintegrate in their sins in the "land of their enemies"'. (26:39) What is the meaning of "the land of their enemies" according to Hirsch?
6. Why is the section of the Torah detailing voluntary gifts to the Temple placed at the end of the Book of Leviticus, rather than in the earlier sections dealing with the offerings - according to Hirsch?
7. What types of 'ma'aserot' (tithes) are mentioned in this Parasha, and who gets to eat them, following Rashi's explanation?
PARASHAT BECHUKOTAI - ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES
1. According to Ibn Ezra, the curses are given special prominence and detail because they are meant to impress on the Israelites the importance of keeping on the right path.
2. The Ramban's explanation regards spiritual reward in the World to Come as a natural sequel to earthly spiritual achievement and service of G-d. What is unnatural is that spiritually worthy behaviour should bring earthly physical blessings - such as security, prosperity, and good health. The Torah states the unnatural, not the natural.
3. 'If you do not perform "all" these commandments' (26:14), stresses "all" for the following reason. The Israelites must endeavour to keep the entire Torah to the best of their ability - not to pick and choose what they want to keep and what they want to ignore. [That might well include the mentality that is ultra-meticulous on the length of the sidelocks, yet would not observe the mitzvah of standing up for the aged a few verses later - for example, in giving up one's seat on a crowded bus]
4. Those who conquer and settle the Holy Land following the sins of the Israelites will not proper there. 'I will make the Land desolate. Your enemies who live upon it shall be desolate.' (26:32) Although the Israelites would be exiled from the Land, none of conquerors would thrive there (Rashi ad loc). Indeed, history shows that the Land deteriorated during the period of the exiles - few conquering countries succeeded in eking more than a mere existence out of it.
5. They shall 'disintegrate… in the land of their enemies' (26:39), according to Hirsch, applies to those Israelites who adopt the elements of Gentiles' lifestyle that are against Torah teaching, with the claim that Torah Law applies in the Holy Land only.
6. According to Hirsch, such voluntary gifts, whilst being commendable, are not as important as the performance of the commandments, and certainly cannot atone for laxity in performing the Mitzvot. Their placement at the very end of Leviticus is precisely to make that point.
7. The two types of Ma'aseh are Ma'aseh Sheini (second tithe - 27:30) and Ma'aseh Beheima (tithe for cattle 27:32). The former, (following Deut. 14 22-27, and Rashi here) applies in Years 1,2,4,and 5 of the seven year Shemita cycle, where the produce may be eaten by the owner in 'the place that G-d chooses' (Jerusalem) only. Likewise the ma'aseh beheima - each tenth animal that passes from the corral through the exit 'under the stick, is holy' (27:32). Rashi points out that this does not go to the Priests, but is made into an offering and eaten by the owners (in Jerusalem).
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON PARASHAT BECHUKOTAI
'They will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers, for the treachery in which they have betrayed Me, and for having behaved towards me in a contrary manner. I too will behave towards them in a contrary manner, and I will bring them into the land of their enemies… perhaps then their unfeeling heart will be humbled, and they will gain appeasement for their sins… I will remember My covenant with Jacob…' (26:40-2). So concludes the Tochacha - the words of rebuke G-d communicated through Moses, regarding what would eventually happen to the Israelites on abandoning the Torah. However traditional Torah teaching - that Vidui - confession to G-d - is an essential element of Teshuva, does not seem to fit into these pesukim. The first part of the above quotation states that G-d will continue to punish the Israelites, even after they have acknowledged their wrong-doings and confessed them to the Almighty. Why does G-d respond by intensifying their persecution instead of accepting their Teshuva?
My attempts to answer the above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website under Behar-Bechukotai 5761
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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