By Yochanan Gordon
The precision of Torah is such that if one parashah is followed by a seemingly unrelated subject matter, it begs a question.
Along these lines, when Parashas Emor closes with the parashah of Shemittah and is followed with Parashas Behar, Rashi famously inquires: “Why is the parashah of Shemittah juxtaposed with that of Har Sinai?
Similarly, when one Gemara closes with a given topic and the next one opens with a seemingly unrelated concept — for example, the end of tractate Nazir and the beginning of tractate Sotah — the Gemara questions their juxtaposition and answers, in this case: “Anyone who sees a sotah in her degradation will refrain from drinking wine.”
Therefore, having just concluded Sefer Vayikra, which contains the reading of the Tochachah followed by the observance of the Shavuos festival, what is the connection between these two phenomena?
At first glance, it would seem that there could be no two greater opposites than Torah and the notion of Tochachah, the sort we are exposed to in the parshiyos of Bechukosai and Ki Savo. Of Torah it is written: “Eitz Chaim hi l’machazikim bah.” Torah is light, life, riches, and everything that is synonymous with goodness and health.How then could we equate it through juxtaposition with the curses, which contain all sorts of horrible outcomes for those who don’t learn Torah or embrace the mitzvos with the excitement and alacrity that is becoming of a Jew?
Even the behavior of Pinchas, whose zealotry was executed with complete sincerity and for the sake of G-d, and whose actions had legal precedent, was categorized as “halachah v’ein morin kein” (it is the law, but we do not instruct people to do so). Furthermore, had Zimri turned around and killed Pinchas in an act of self-defense, he would not have been liable. It emerges clearly that curses, death, and violence are anathema to the objective of Torah, which is all about life, peace, and harmony. So all this underscores the question we began with: Why does the Torah juxtapose the holiday of the giving of the Torah with the curses of Bechukosai?
Upon further analysis, it would seem that there is more than meets the eye vis-a-vis the Tochachah. It once occurred that the B’aal HaTanya, who normally read the Torah on Shabbos, had to be away the week of Parashas Bechukosai and appointed an alternative ba’al kriah in his stead. The Ba’al HaTanya’s son, Dov Ber, who would later become his successor, passed out during the reading of the curses. After he was revived and began recovering he was asked about his reaction to the curses; he heard these curses every year and yet this was the first time that he had reacted in this manner. The Mitteler Rebbe responded, “When the Tatte reads the Tochachah they don’t sound like curses.”
There is a ma’amar in which the Alter Rebbe interprets one of the verses of the Tochachah and reveals to us the inner meaning of that verse in particular and all the curses in general. The verse states, “When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women will be able to bake your share of bread in one oven; it will be doled out in measure and you will eat without becoming sated.”
The Alter Rebbe explains that the difference between baked bread and unbaked bread is in one’s ability to digest the bread that is being eaten. Torah is likened to bread which, when eaten, is meant to become one with the person’s flesh and bloodstream. By contrast, however, if you try to eat food that is not properly cooked and all its ingredients are still conspicuous, that food will not unite with the person eating it. Essentially, the verse is stating by virtue of the fact that the bread will be baked and properly digested in one oven — one corresponding to the Alufo shel Olam, He Who is One, G-d — you will eat and not become sated, meaning that you will be able to learn and continue to remain hungry for more wisdom.
The message that the Alter Rebbe is imparting here is that the curses are in fact berachos that are rooted in a more sublime place than the revealed blessings.
There is a Gemara that supports this premise in Moed Katan 9b: R’ Shimon bar Yochai sent his son Elazar to R’ Yonasan ben Osmai and R’ Yehuda ben Geirim in order to receive their blessings. After he arrived in their presence and requested their blessings, they lavished on him what seemed to be the most severe curses. R’ Elazar returned to his father and, completely overwhelmed, asked why he sent him there to receive their curses. When R’ Elazar told his father what they told him, R’ Shimon corrected his son and explained how the same words that he construed as curses were in fact the greatest blessings.
Why is it that blessings should be couched in seemingly negative terms? There is more than one way to address this idea. I consulted a chassidic scholar over Shabbos about this and his response held an important message about life that is equally relevant to Torah and to the holiday of Shavuos that is upon us.
The question I posed to him was as follows: The reason given for the necessity of couching blessings in such severe terms is because there are times when the satan could attempt to obstruct these blessings from entering the world by prosecuting the subjects and pointing out that they really do not deserve these blessings. Therefore, the only way to circumvent his prosecution is to “trick” him into thinking that they are not blessings, but rather curses.
Similarly, the reason Mashiach comes from the union between Lot and his daughters is in order to allow his soul into this world in an uncontested manner. But if the terms the blessings are being bestowed with are just a ploy to deceive the satan, why should their superficial interpretation hold any sway or influence? If these were initially meant as blessings, why should the fact that they are couched as curses be the cause of concern?
The answer I was given was if you read the words and they appear to be curses, then you have reason for concern. If you are unable to see the diamond in the rough, the blessing within the curse, or the silver lining in any situation, that itself is reason for concern.
Back to the story with Reb Dov Ber. Since the Alter Rebbe was able to perceive the blessings within the curses, when he read the Tochachah the people only heard blessings. Obviously, the ba’al kriah who had assumed the role in replacement of the Alter Rebbe did not see it that way, and it had impacted the sensitive soul of Reb Dov Ber, causing him real physical anguish.
This parashah is juxtaposed with the holiday of Shavuos because, according to the Mishnah in perek Kinyan Torah, a primary principle for receiving the Torah is “Oheiv es ha’tochachos.” I could think of other adjectives to describe someone who is able to withstand reproof or chastisement, but to suggest that one should love reproof seems a bit much. Perhaps, however, in light of the above, this is referring to someone who sees the blessing within the Tochachah, leading him or her to love tochachah.
Let us receive the Torah anew this year and allow its light to penetrate our bodies, leading us to see the good in every situation and every person, and grasp the great blessings that G-d is showering upon us at every moment. Gut yom tov.