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.