Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Bechukosai


V’hishbati chaya ra’ah min ha’aretz (26:6)

Although Parshas Bechukosai is commonly referred to as the parsha of “tochacha” – rebuke – it actually begins with a number of blessings promised to those who observe the mitzvos properly. One of the blessings is that “I will cause dangerous animals to cease from the land.” The Toras Kohanim quotes a dispute between two Tannaim regarding the nature of this blessing.

The opinion of Rebbi Yehuda is that deadly animals will simply cease to exist. Rebbi Shimon maintains that they will continue to live, but their natures will change so that they are no longer dangerous. While this appears at first glance to be a mere technical dispute over the translation of a word, the two legendary sages of Dvinsk write that the opinions of the Tannaim in fact stem from their views regarding other issues.

The Rogatchover Gaon notes that the root of the word “v’hishbati” is the same root as the word “tashbisu,” which the Torah uses (Shemos 12:15) in reference to the obligation to remove all chometz from our houses before Pesach. The Mishnah in Pesachim (21a) quotes a dispute about the correct way to dispose of chometz. The opinion of Rebbi Yehuda is that it must be burned, while the other Sages maintain that it is sufficient to throw it into the ocean or scatter it and disperse it in the wind. Rebbi Yehuda, in contrast to the other Rabbis, understands that the only way to properly remove the chometz is to destroy it to the point of nonexistence. It is for this reason that he interpreted this blessing as similarly referring to the complete and utter removal of wild beasts from the land of Israel.

The Meshech Chochmah similarly suggests that the position of Rebbi Shimon emanates from his opinions in other places. The Gemora in Berachos (35b) quotes Rebbi Yishmael as maintaining that a person should study Torah and also work at a profession. Rebbi Shimon argues that the ideal level is to spend one’s every waking moment engaged in the singular study of Torah while relying on Hashem to take care of his earthly needs. The Gemora in Shabbos (11a) relates that Rebbi Shimon didn’t interrupt his learning even to recite the daily prayers, as he had no earthly needs and relied on his Torah study to protect him. It was for this reason that upon emerging from his cave, Rebbi Shimon burned the first farmer he encountered due to his anger over the man’s wasted time (Shabbos 33b).

We find that when a Jew serves Hashem with all of his energy, Hashem in turn protects him from the natural dangers posed by wild animals. The Gemora in Berachos (33a) relates that Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa’s neighbors approached him in fear of a poisonous serpent in the area. He placed his foot on top of the serpent’s hole, inciting it to bite him. The snake immediately died, and Rebbi Chanina explained, “The snake doesn’t kill; sin kills.” Similarly, we find in the Gemora in Makkos (11a) that Eliyahu HaNavi informed Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi that had he been on a sufficiently high spiritual level, he would have protected not only himself but his entire surroundings from wild animals in the area.

However, this level of supernatural protection is provided only to a person who spends his entire day engrossed in the study of Torah. One who leaves his studies to tend to his business affairs is left vulnerable. The blessings in Parshas Bechukosai are addressed to those on the highest spiritual level. Because Rebbi Shimon maintains that this refers to individuals who spend their entire day studying Torah, only he can interpret the verse to mean that the wild animals will still exist but will no longer be able to cause any harm.

Dabeir el B’nei Yisroel v’amarta aleihem ish ki yaflee neder b’erkecha n’fashos l’Hashem (27:2)

This week we conclude the book of Leviticus with Parshas Bechukosai, which is commonly referred to as the parsha of “tochacha” – rebuke. It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah’s laws. Each curse seems worse than the one before it, and indeed, throughout the generations it has always been a challenge to find someone willing to be called to the Torah for the Aliyah in which these verses are read.

However, it is curious to note that after concluding this terrifying and frightening section of rebuke, the parsha abruptly switches to a section dealing with the laws of “Arachin” – the dedication of the value of oneself or another person to the Temple. This section seems completely misplaced. What is the relevance of these laws to the rebuke which dominates the rest of the parsha?

Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky recounts an inspiring story which will shed some light on this question. During the Holocaust, when many of the horrifying curses of this week’s parsha were manifested before our very eyes, the Germans took a particularly sadistic pleasure in torturing and tormenting the great Rabbis who served as teachers and inspiration for the Jewish people. The suffering endured by these righteous leaders is unfathomable.

In one particularly gruesome incident, a number of merciless Nazi officers beat the Klausenberger Rebbe to the brink of death. After enduring seemingly endless blows, the officers asked the bleeding and only semi-conscious Rebbe if after all of this suffering he still believed that the Jews are G-d’s chosen people. He responded unequivocally in the affirmative.

Amazed at the Rebbe’s seemingly naïve and misplaced faith, they pressed him for an explanation. He replied, “As long as I am not the cruel oppressor of innocent victims, and as long as I am the one down here on the ground maintaining my unwavering faith in my principles and traditions, I am still able to raise my head proudly and know that G-d chose our people.”

Applying the lesson of this story to our original question, the Kotzker Rebbe explains that after reading the terrifying curses contained earlier in the parsha and seeing how they have tragically been fulfilled throughout history, Jews may begin to lose belief in their value and self-worth. As a nation, we have been persecuted more than any other people throughout the ages. Such intense national suffering could easily cause a person to give up hope.

In order to counter this mistaken conclusion, the section outlining the painful times which will befall the Jewish people is immediately followed by the section dealing with the laws of Arachin. This section details how much a person is required to donate if he chooses to dedicate the “value” of himself or another Jew to the Temple. This juxtaposition comes to remind us that even in the darkest times, after enduring the most inhumane suffering fathomable, although we may not be accorded respect by our oppressors, our intrinsic worth in Hashem’s eyes is eternal and unchanging.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them): 

1)     There is a Talmudic maxim (Kiddushin 39b) that Hashem doesn’t give a person reward in this world for the mitzvos that he does. How can Parshas Bechukosai begin by stating that if the Jews study Torah and perform the mitzvos properly, Hashem will bless them in this world? (Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah 9:1)

2)     On the blessing that the tree of the field will give its fruit (26:4), the Toras Kohanim explains that if the Jews perform Hashem’s will, trees won’t give forth fruits after years of growing as they currently do, but will immediately bear fruits on the day they are planted, just as they did in the times of Adam HaRishon. In what way will this blessing be beneficial, as the fruits produced during the first three years are considered orlah and forbidden not only to consume but to use for any benefit? (Har Tzvi, M’rafsin Igri, K’Motzei Shalal Rav Parshas Kedoshim)

3)     In the blessings contained in the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai for those who observe the mitzvos, no mention is made of the wealth and material success which are referred to in the blessings in Parshas Ki Savo (Devorim 28:3-5, 11-12). What is the reason for this difference? (Taima D’Kra)

4)     The Torah makes clear (26:21) that many of the horrifying punishments enumerated in Parshas Bechukosai are punishments for behaving casually with Hashem. Which sin is explicitly described as an example of acting casually toward Hashem? (Mishnah Berurah 191:5)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.