JCT student Tzvi Silver on this week’s parasha.
ESCAPING THE TOCHACHA
Tzvi Silver, a student in his second year of studies towards a degree in Electronics Engineering at JCT’s Lev Campus, on this week’s parasha
Parshat Bechukotai contains many important, repeated themes in the Jewish People’s history and future. It opens with the bracha, a very generally-termed promise of the good things that will happen if we follow G-d’s Will. Then, it tells of the bone-chilling tochacha, the five stage admonition that tells us in very specific and not uncertain terms what will happen to us if we fail to earn the bracha. Then, we learn of G-d’s promise to preserve us, even when we are at our lowest:
וְזָכַרְתִּי, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי יַעֲקוֹב; וְאַף אֶת-בְּרִיתִי יִצְחָק וְאַף אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אַבְרָהָם, אֶזְכֹּר–וְהָאָרֶץ אֶזְכֹּר… וְאַף-גַּם-זֹאת בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם, לֹא-מְאַסְתִּים וְלֹא-גְעַלְתִּים לְכַלֹּתָם–לְהָפֵר בְּרִיתִי, אִתָּם: כִּי אֲנִי ה’, אֱלֹקֵיהֶם.
And I shall then remember my promise to Yaakov and also my promise to Yitzchak and even my promise to Avraham- I will remember these and the land will remember them… And no matter what, when they are in their enemies’ land, I will not reject them nor abhor them, to destroy them forever, to break my promise with them, for I am Hashem their G-d. (ויקרא כו:מב,מד)
With this small “silver lining,” this slightly reassuring safety net, the terrifying tochacha closes. While it is very reassuring that no matter how badly we misbehave, G-d will never completely destroy our people, it’s very interesting to note that there is no mention of a happy ending after the admonition. G-d will never forget, and never let us be completely destroyed. He’ll remember His promise to us and act on it, but what exactly does this entail? What is the endgame for the chosen people when they choose to return to G-d?
In order to strengthen our question, I would like to remind everyone of the famous Meshech Chachma on the end of the tochacha, which puts our entire parsha into a historical perspective. Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen of Davinsk, the author of the Meshech Chachma, writes that all of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Bet Hamikdash can be seen as an unfortunate and repetitive cycle. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish People were exiled from our land because of our sins, because we did not properly respect G-d nor fellow Jews. Ever since then, we have wandered from land to land, with the same pattern repeating itself every time. The Jews, kicked out of their home away from home, would settle in a new land, initially cautious as they built their separate communities and Torah centers. However, as time goes on, the Jews become successful in their new environment and begin to want to “fit in” to their new host culture, leaving Torah values behind in the process, as is written in the Meshech Chachma:
יבקר ברעיון כוזב את אשר הנחילו אבותינו, ישער חדשות בשכוח מה היה לאומתו בהתנודדו בים התלאות, ויהיה מה. עוד מעט ישוב לאמר “שקר נחלו אבותינו”, והישראלי בכלל ישכח מחצבתו ויחשב לאזרח רענן. יעזוב לימודי דתו, ללמוד לשונות לא לו, יליף מקלקלתא ולא יליף מתקנא, יחשוב כי ברלין היא ירושלים, וכמקולקלים שבהם עשיתם כמתוקנים לא עשיתם. “ואל תשמח ישראל אל גיל כעמים” (הושע ט, א).
… He will imagine new things, forgetting what happened to his nation when it staggered in a sea of troubles, no matter how bad it was. Soon enough, he will say ‘our fathers gave us an inheritance of lies.’ This Jew, will forget from where he came, considering himself to be a native of his adopted country. He will stop studying Judaism to begin learning languages that are not his own. He will learn from the corrupt ways of the gentiles, and not from our good ways. He will think that Berlin is [the new] Jerusalem… “and Israel shall not be happy with the joys of the Nations” (משך חכמה ויקרא כו)
(To provide context, the משך חכמה was written at the turn of the Twentieth Century in Europe, where many Jews were assimilating into German culture. To apply this to our days, one could substitute New York for Berlin.)
As this processprogresses, the Jews become more dispersed and assimilated until the Jewish People are almost in danger of disappearing for good. At this time, G-d intervenes to fulfill His promise of “ואף גם זאת,” by causing trouble in the new host land (Anti-Semitism, pogroms, etc.) to save us from ourselves, to force us out in order to ensure the continuation of עם ישראל. This is the message of the tochacha– that as long as our nation is in the Diaspora, this cycle will continue and continue as a punishment for our ancestors’ sins.
While this does very accurately portray Jewish history for the past two millennia, and it definitely does paint a scary picture for the future, there is something missing from the Meshech Chachma that is hinted to in the pesukim and is very much present in our times- תשובה, return.
In our parsha, after describing the five terrible admonitions, the passuk describes what will happen when the Jews inevitably realize their mistakes: וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת-עֲוֹנָם וְאֶת-עֲוֹן אֲבֹתָם, בְּמַעֲלָם אֲשֶׁר מָעֲלוּ-בִי, וְאַף, אֲשֶׁר-הָלְכוּ עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי.
And they will confess their sins and the sins of their forefathers, in the treachery they committed against Me, and also because they have treated me too casually (כו:מ)
But, G-d will not accept their vidduy:
אַף-אֲנִי, אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם, בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם
I too will treat them with casualness, and I will bring them to the land of their enemies (מא)
Wait… the whole point of the tochacha is to warn us of the price of abusing our relationship with G-d. Shouldn’t He be happy that the Jews, after suffering five rounds of serious punishments, would admit that they did something wrong?
אף אני אלך עמם בקרי– אע”פ שהתודו את עונם מאחר שאינם נכנעים וחוזרים
I too will treat them with casualness– even though they confessed their sins, G-d will wait because they haven’t yet given in and returned (חזקוני שם)
Even though the Jewish People will have realized that they made a mistake, and will even go as far as apologizing to G-d for their iniquity, their apology is incomplete. How is it incomplete? Because they haven’t returned yet to the land they were forced to leave in the first place. In order to stop the unfortunate cycle described in Meshech Chachma which is a punishment for treating G-d and His land with casualness, we need to do תשובה for both of these sins. Apologizing to Hashem will only help with our ancestors’ transgressions against Him- in order to fix their transgression against Eretz Yisrael, we must return there and thereby remove ourselves from the Exile. Only then can we earn an end to the cycle of punishment, of G-d treating us with keri, and merit a fulfilment of “וזכרתי להם ברית ראשונים… אשר הוצאתי אתם מארץ מצרים,” which could very well involve us being redeemed the same way.
Despite this subtle message having been read on a yearly basis for a very long time, until last century, it was impossible to do the latter, more literal type of teshuva. However, in our times, we have a chance to break the cycle, and to earn an end to G-d treating us with keri. It is no coincidence that the beginning of the passuk which immediately follows “אף אני אלך עם בקרי,” the first hopeful passuk in the tochacha equals 1940 (“וזכרתי את בריתי יעקוב ואף”). The decade of 1940 was a turning point for the Jewish People. In those ten years, we witnessed the end of the Jewish People in Eastern Europe, and the beginning of a new round of the Meshech Chachma‘s cycle, as many Jews emigrated to the United States and began to grow the prominent communities there. But, even as that was going on, a new branch of Jewish History began, one which Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen could have never anticipated and even the pesukim barely mention- a chance for redemption, a chance to end our two thousand year tochacha and return to the bracha. With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, at the end of the decade hinted to in our passuk, the Jewish People’s existence has not been perfect. We’ve worked to revive the land that was cursed to become fallow, and we’ve rebuilt a culture where one used to be. Even though every step has been a battle, we’ve already begun to see a fulfilment of parts of the bracha– we’ve witnessed amazing rain in the past week alone, fulfilling the blessing of ” וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם, בְּעִתָּם” and enabling us to continue fulfilling ” וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ, וְעֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה יִתֵּן פִּרְיו.” The Israel Defense Forces have become so successful, powerful and able that we are truly seeing a fulfillment of ” וְרָדְפוּ מִכֶּם חֲמִשָּׁה מֵאָה, וּמֵאָה מִכֶּם רְבָבָה יִרְדֹּפוּ; וְנָפְלוּ אֹיְבֵיכֶם לִפְנֵיכֶם, לֶחָרֶב” in our days. And last, but definitely not least, G-d’s shechina has returned to the Holy Land, fulfilling ” וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי, בְּתוֹכְכֶם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וְאַתֶּם, תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם,” and giving us a unique opportunity to make amends for our ancestors’ sins of not respecting G-d properly.
Even though we have come so far, we are not there yet. We have not yet merited the ultimate bracha of “ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד,” nor “ונתתי משכני בתוככם ולא תגעל נפשי אתכם,” and I believe this is because in our days of the אתחלתא דגאולה, we are halfway between tochacha and geulah. Even though we have recently reached huge milestone of having six million Jews dwelling in Israel, the other 48% of global Jewry are still in the Diaspora. They are still in constant danger of the next stage of the tochacha and Meshech Chachma‘s cycle, and whether they live in Ukraine, or France, or Spain, or even the United States, no country has ever remained safe for the Jews forever. In our days of the עקבתא דמשיחא, we are in a transition between tochacha and geulah. However, We now have a chance to make amends for our sins, permanently remove ourselves from the physical danger of the Exile, and earn the amazing brachot that come to the Jewish People who are truly following G-d’s will – all we need to do if follow G-d’s implicit call for teshuva, and return to the land that we were exiled from so long ago. If we do this, then , with Hashem’s help, we will see an end to the tzarot of our brothers, a fulfillment of the first eleven pesukim of Bechokotai,and the coming of the geulah, very very soon.