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Bechukotai 5776-2016

“The Tochaycha–G-d’s Daunting Reproof of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bechukotai, contains the first of two Tochaychot–תּוֹכֵחוֹת, G-d’s reproofs or admonitions of the People of Israel, which are contained in the Torah. The latter Tochaycha–תּוֹכֵחָה is found in parashat Kee Tavo, Deuteronomy 28:1-68.

The Tochaycha in parashat Bechukotai differs from the one in parashat Kee Tavo in the following ways. The message in Bechukotai is in the plural, and is delivered by G-d to the People of Israel, including Moses, who is in the midst of the people.

The Tochaycha in parashat Kee Tavo, however, delivered in G-d’s name by Moses, is formulated in the Hebrew singular. For example, Deuteronomy 28:34 states, וְהָיִיתָ מְשֻׁגָּע מִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה, and you (singular) will be driven mad by what your (singular) eyes behold. Whereas, in Bechukotai, G-d speaks in the Hebrew plural directly to all the people, declaring, in Leviticus 26:4, וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם, I will provide your rains in their proper times. The word “your” is in the Hebrew plural form, and is directed to the entire nation, rather than individuals.

The Tochaycha in parashat Bechukotai opens with a series of blessings, that is followed by a long list of dire warnings and, if the people fail to heed G-d’s words, potential curses. A number of commentaries, including the Ibn Ezra note that while the blessings found in the opening section of the Tochaycha are fewer in number than the threats and curses, the blessings are of significantly greater quality. The purpose of the long list of curses is to instill fear in the people’s hearts and to keep them from sinning.

The opening blessings of the Tochaycha in Bechukotai are both inspiring and majestic, suggesting G-d’s reluctance to chastise His people. The Al-mighty promises, in Leviticus 26:11-12, וְנָתַתִּי מִשְׁכָּנִי בְּתוֹכְכֶם, וְלֹא תִגְעַל נַפְשִׁי אֶתְכֶם. וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי בְּתוֹכְכֶם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵא-לֹקִים, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי לְעָם, I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst; I will be your G-d and you shall be My people.

The sudden transition to the curses is dramatic and fear-provoking. The Torah in Leviticus 26:21 warns, וְאִם תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי, וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, If you remain hostile (קֶרִי–keh’ree) toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. The Al-mighty will allow wild beasts to attack the people and bereave the nation of their children and wipe out their cattle. He shall decimate them, and their roads shall become deserted.

The Hebrew word “keh’ree,” found in Leviticus 26:21, appears nowhere else in the Bible in that form and reflects the people’s disobedience. The commentators wrestle with its meaning. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman interprets it to mean that the people will act at “cross purposes” with G-d, doing the opposite of what He commands. They will behave like children who, claiming their autonomy, do the opposite of what their parents have instructed.

Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra maintain that the word “keh’ree” is derived from the Hebrew word mikreh–מִקְרֶה, chance. It suggests that the people follow G-d’s words only when it is convenient, or when things work out favorably, rather than acting properly and consistently out of faith or love.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter  suggests that the Hebrew root of the word “keh’ree” is kor–קוֹר, cold, expressing G-d’s disappointment with the lack of passion with which the people perform the mitzvot. When the people do fulfill the Divine commandments, they do so perfunctorily, coldly, in a calculated manner and without feeling, draining the mitzvot of their religious value.

In response, the Al-mighty declares, Leviticus 26:24, that if the people observe without love, G-d will act toward the people “b’keh’ree,” coldly, without love, making forgiveness for their misbehavior more difficult.

The Midrash Sifra notes the repetition of the phrase, “Sevenfold for your sins,” is found in both Leviticus 26:18 and 26:21. The Sifra maintains that this repetition indicates that the people will experience a seven-step process as they draw away from the Al-mighty. These steps are alluded to by the wording of the Torah’s reproof:

  1. The people will cease learning Torah.
  2. Because of their lack of education and ignorance, the people will come to believe that the commandments are a matter of personal choice rather than moral obligations.
  3. The people will resent those who study and practice, because of the guilt they feel due to their own lack of commitment.
  4. In order to make themselves feel less guilty they will prevent others from fulfilling the commandments.
  5. They will ultimately deny that the commandments are of Divine origin.
  6. This will lead the people to deny the existence of a covenant between G-d and Israel.
  7. The people will ultimately deny the existence of G-d.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:9, that there is nothing new under the sun. Examining the seven steps of disengagement, it is difficult to ignore the fact that many of these same actions are taking place today before our very eyes in our own times. The root of apostasy is the vast Jewish illiteracy and the tragic lack of even a basic Jewish education. The illiteracy inevitably leads to a total rejection of G-d and of the traditional way of Jewish life.

What then is the proper Jewish response to the Tochaycha?

Those who desire to see a bright Jewish future must be passionate about Jewish learning. They cannot be casual! They must strive to establish the best schools with the finest teachers for the children, and provide all Jewish children with positive, joyous, Jewish experiences. We cannot overdose on Judaism.

Our dear friend and supporter, Mr. Sam Domb, a passionate advocate for Jewish education recently said that if we fail to pay now for quality Jewish education, we will have to pay Rabbi Buchwald later to help bring our estranged children back. While NJOP would welcome greater support, we certainly do not wish to receive it under those trying circumstances.

Those who truly care, must not compromise on either the quality or quantity of education. If we do, we will be visited with the same horrors that we read of in parashat Bechukotai. The writing on the wall is very clear. By sincerely devoting ourselves to ensure a proper Jewish education for every Jewish child and for ourselves as well, we can spare ourselves grave agony.

May you be blessed.