In an episode toward the end of this Parsha, Miriam and Aharon were rebuked by Hashem for slandering Moshe. There is much misunderstanding as to exactly what took place and how Aharon – who was a Rodef Shalom, a pursuer of peace – could be involved in a slander; and of his brother no less. Rashi explains that at Mt. Sinai, Hashem commanded Moshe to separate from his wife so that he might constantly be in a state of Tahara – purity – so that Hashem's words could come to him without advanced notice. Moses informed only his wife of this. Because of his great humility he refrained from notifying his brother and sister of this personal commandment lest he portray himself as a superior prophet to them. Moshe's wife, however, was no longer able to contain herself and confided in Miriam who, in turn, went to Aharon, the pursuer of peace, to save this marriage. She claimed that, "we too are prophets and yet Hashem did not command us to separate from our spouses; why does Moshe hold himself superior?" Although this complaint about Moshe may have been well intended for the purpose of saving a marriage and for the benefit of Moshe's wife who was a "Kushite" – beautiful and well mannered – and, therefore, unworthy of this treatment, Hashem still considered this to be slander because it was against Moshe who was "more humble than any man on the face of the earth." The worst punishment, which they both received, was: "and Hashem's anger was upon them and He departed." There is no punishment worse than the departure of Hashem's presence.
"And the man Moshe was very humble..." (12:3.) Rav Moshe Feinstein once was walking along a street in his neighborhood when he heard a voice calling, "Moshe, Moshe!" Looking up, he saw that the voice was that of an acquaintance, who was behind the wheel of his car. Without blinking an eye, Rav Moshe walked over to the car. Upon realizing that Rav Moshe had assumed that he was being called, the man turned crimson with embarrassment. He said, "I was calling my son, who happened to be in the street as I drove by. I would never dream of addressing the Rosh Yeshiva in such a disrespectful manner. Besides, if I had something to discuss with the Rosh Yeshiva I would have gotten out of my car and gone over to him. I would not have dared to ask the Rosh Yeshiva to come to me." Rav Moshe assured the man that there was nothing to be concerned about. "It is already many years that these things mean nothing to me." He was exhibiting the anavoot, the humility, for which that we so admire Moshe Rabeynu.
This week’s Parsha has a Haftorah assigned to it that tells us about the prophet Hosea and his wife Gomer. I’d like to share a story told by my colleague Rabbi Jack Reimer:
I read a wonderful some time ago, a story that is, for me, the key to understanding the strange story of Hosea and Gomer.
The story is about a young Rabbi who was traveling on the 'D' train from Brooklyn to Manhattan in New York City. As the train rattled its way towards its destination, he sat quietly, reading a book, as do most of the other travelers. Two young men, six feet tall, in gang jackets, entered the train with a big boom box blasting away.
Near the Rabbi sat a little old lady who probably tipped the scale at eighty pounds and who might have been five feet tall, if she stretched. The little old lady didn't like the noise coming out of the boom box, so she yelled out, "Who's going to make them turn it down?" Everyone hunkered down in their seats, taking a deeper interest in what they were reading and pretending that they didn't hear her . . . including the Rabbi.
One of the young toughs said to the woman, "Lady, if you don't like this music, you can try to turn it off." She shuffled across the subway car with her hand in front of her, ready to take his dare. The ruffian put down the boom box and hauled back to deck her. Up jumped the Rabbi and blocked the tough guy's punch.
The guy was puzzled and he looked down at the Rabbi, who was about a foot shorter than he was and probably weighed only half as much, and said to him, "What's your problem, boy?" The Rabbi replied with a timid smile, "I have no problem, but just don't hit the lady, please." He returned to his seat and went back to his reading. The lady shuffled back across the car.
The young tough flipped the power switch on the boom box again and inundated the entire subway train in full-force, deep-based, woofer and tweeter enhanced, penetrating unmitigated, raucous, deafening noise.
The old lady cried out, "Who's going to make them turn it off?" Everyone on the train reread their previous sentence with increased concentration. The young tough grinned and invited her over. The little old lady shuffled over and once again, reached to turn off the power switch on the boom box. The young tough hauled back to hit her, the Rabbi jumped up to block. The young tough looked confused, and said, "Now you're getting on my nerves, boy."
The Rabbi smiled and said, "Sorry . . . just don't hit the lady," and returned to his seat. The little old lady shuffled towards the Rabbi's seat and stood with her back to him. And the two young toughs thankfully got off at the next station.
As the Rabbi settled back into his book, he glanced up at the back of the little old lady and thought, "Gee, I just risked my life, not once, but twice, to protect her . . . and she didn't even thank me." And then, after two minutes of self-righteous indulgence, the Rabbi stopped in his tracks with an incredible realization. "God just performed not one miracle, but two, to save my life, and did I stop to thank Him?"
That story is the key to understanding this week's Haftorah. The prophet, Hosea, had a wife named Gomer, who betrayed him, who took his gifts and gave them to her lovers. At first, he was filled with a towering rage. And then he realized that what she had done to him, we all do to God! God has given us so many gifts - health, wealth, harvests - and what do we do with them? Instead of thanking Him, we spend His gifts on vanities and give them to false gods - to pride, to vanity, to war. If we don't appreciate the gifts that God has given us and the favors God does for us, how can we be angry at those who don't appreciate the favors we do for them?
Those two toughs on the subway train probably did not know much about the Bible. I bet they didn't even know that the story of Hosea and Gomer is the Haftorah for this week. But nevertheless, they and the old lady taught the Rabbi a lesson that he tried to remember when he came to 'shul' on Shabbat Bamidbar and that he tries to remember all the time.
Shouldn't we try to remember this lesson too?
Parshiyot Behar/Bechukotai hold a special place in my heart. These Sedrot were in fact my bar mitzvah portions many years ago. When I was going through my notes to prepare for this D’Var, I not only found my bar mitzvah speech; I even found the typed two-and-a-half page draft of the speech with my mother’s (z’l) handwritten comments on it. Most of her comments were editing corrections, but on the back of the first page here’s what she wrote:
“This paragraph contains a very important idea. Unfortunately, it cannot be developed in a very few sentences. Hence you have two choices: 1. Develop it adequately. 2. Omit it. I doubt whether you have time to develop it in such a brief message. Hence you probably should omit it.”
God bless my mother. Reading this makes me miss her so much. First, who says “hence” not once but TWICE? Second, what wise and gentle feedback. Needless to say, I took her advice and omitted that paragraph.
But I thought that in this D’Var, I would share that paragraph with you, and hope that my mother was right-that the idea it contains is, as she put it, “very important.” Here it is:
“In the midst of the curses that could befall the Jews, the Torah points out a very interesting fact: God has just delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and in Bechukotai, God holds out exile as a punishment. This is a grand display of God’s greatness. He can destroy his own work, and yet attain His goal, disregarding the past.”
This parsha is full of horrible curses. After some brief passages recounting all the blessings that God will bestow on us if we obey Him, we read about two columns of all the curses that will befall us if you “disobey me and remain hostile to Me.” We are supposed to read this section as quickly and as quietly as we can because the curses there are so terrifying. I sometimes wonder if Yiddish curses got their sting from these examples because there’s so much similarity. Let me try a few on you. And in researching these Yiddish curses, I was really shocked at just how nasty they are. So many of them I won’t even share with you, especially not here on Shabbat. But a couple will make the point for me.
One is: LAcheN ZOLe ER MIT YASHTERKES.
This translates roughly has “He should laugh with lizards.”
Here’s another one:
ALa TSEYN ZOLN BAY IM AROYSFAIN, NOTe eye-NER ZOL IM BLYBN OYF TSON EVETUNG.
That translates as : All his teeth should fall out except one to make him suffer.
And here’s a final favorite:
MIGULGL ZOL ER VERN IN A HENGLAYHTER, BY TOG ZOL ER HENGEN, UN BAY NAKHT ZOL ER BRENEN.
“He should be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and to burn by light.”
These curses show great creativity as well as a deep understanding of human desire and weakness. They also, according to one expert, are different from curses in other cultures. For example, Anglo-Saxon curses often deal with body parts. I’ll leave it to all of you to think about what that might involve. Catholic curses in contrast usually go for blasphemy, and in the Far East people apparently curse by insulting their adversaries’ ancestors. But Yiddish curses are different—they PROPHESIZE. It takes its time to get to us. It lulls the listener into thinking it’s about to hear something positive—what could be wrong with being a chandelier, after all?—and then—WHAM—you are cursed. And you are left to try to imagine how awful your life would be if in fact that curse were to materialize. If I say to you, “may you turn into a centipede with ingrown toenails,” that’s quite an image. OR: “may you own one hundred houses and each house has 100 rooms, and may you have a stomach ache in every room.”
Likewise, God’s curses are future-oriented. They are prophesies—and they are both graphic and poetic. These curses—the tochacha—shock us with their unrelenting intensity and their extremes. “I will cast a faintness in their hearts, and the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight,” God tells the Israelites. Or this one, which really sounds like a Yiddish curse: “Ten women will bake your bread in a single oven; they shall dole out your bread by weight, and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.” Seven times your sins will God punish us, he says. “I will wreak misery upon you—I will cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish.” On some level, perhaps worst of all is God’s announcing that “I will not savor your pleasing odors,” rayach neechoach, which most scholars interpret as God’s way of telling us that he will reject our attempts to offer sacrifices to Him.
These curses are truly terrifying. And these are only a small sample of the examples we read in B’Hukkotai. Some of them seem truly prophetic , and many of them have already come to pass. For example, God tells the Israelites, “I will scatter you among the nations,” and we do indeed know that we Jews are a diasporic people, even as we cherish and support the state of Israel.
Is there any silver lining here? I think there is. At the end of the list of curses, God seems to pause. I can’t help but wonder if He remembers in that moment a number of other commitments He’s made in the Torah. One was to Abraham—I will make your people as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Or when he also tells Abraham—I will make your number as many as the grains of sand on the beach. And think, even before Abraham, about God’s promise to Noach. What does He commit to then? He promises never to destroy the world again. And he repeats it TWICE. The first time, God responds to the “pleasing odor” of Noach’s sacrifice. Think back to that curse I read earlier—when God threatens NOT TO savor the odor of our sacrifices. Well, here in Noach, we hear God proclaim:
As long as the earth endures,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and Heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night
Shall not cease.
And later in the same Parsha, God tells us again: I will maintain my covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Now I suppose a cynic could hear these words, and note that God is being a little cagey here. Right? God tells us He won’t destroy the world by flood—but does that leave FIRE or EBOLA as another possibility? I have to say: I don’t think so. I think God, despite his threats and his curses, is committed to our survival. To the survival of the Jewish people in particular.
At the end of B’Hukkotai, God seems to move from rage to reassurance. He tells Moses: “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling my covenant with them: for I the Lord am THEIR GOD.” God remembers his covenants with our fathers Jacob and Isaac and Abraham. And he ends with “I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, the Lord.”
A parent doesn’t stop being a parent just because a child has been stubborn or has misbehaved in some way. A good parent knows that the child needs time, and needs time to come to his or her own t’shuvah. We don’t reject our children because they have disappointed us. We continue to try to encourage and to guide them to the extent that we can. Ultimately, we are creatures with free will and we know that we can use that freedom to do mitzvot or to sin. God is like that kind of parent—the threats are there but so is the love. I doubt that we would have survived as a people these thousands of years without that love.
It has taken many years, but I have finally answered my mother’s call to explore this Parsha more deeply. I pray that her memory and example will inspire me to continue to study Torah at the level she knew was possible.