A day school teacher once related his challenge of teaching a Hebrew text to young students who had partial—but not yet complete—grasp of the language. He related that as he discussed with his students the Torah’s demand of “v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha,” loving one’s fellow, he quoted the well-known comment of Rabbi Akiva that this mitzvah was a “klal gadol baTorah.” One student quickly raised his hand to translate Rabbi Akiva’s statement and said: “This is a great curse in the Torah.” The teacher did his best not to laugh as the student had confused the Hebrew word “klal,” principle, with a similar-sounding word “klala,”curse.
A simple mistake—but what a difference!
This bulk of this week’s (second) parsha is taken up by the “curses” that would be befall Am Yisrael for a failure to follow the laws of the Torah. In truth, the term “curses” is not a valid description of this section of the parsha. Like the student in elementary school, we make a simple mistake that makes a big difference. The Biblical curse is not the act of using “nivul peh,” foul language, against another (as our society mistakenly believes). To “curse” is, simply, the opposite of to “bless,” to wish someone well: health, success, nachat, etc. A curse, rather, expresses the wish that evil should befall another. In this parsha Hashem is warning the people—not, God forbid, wishing them evil. He is predicting the punishments that could be sent against them for their faithlessness to Him and to His commands but it is certainly not the Divine hope that they will. Therefore, Moshe is delivering Hashem’s “tochacha,” a (early) reproof, an admonition; it is a warning—not a curse.
This is a simple, more accurate translation—but what a difference!
It is interesting to note, and also quite important to understand, that this list of could-be disasters is preceded by a list of could-be blessings. Chazal understood this and, perhaps for this very reason, chose precisely this haftarah that we read from Sefer Yirmiyahu 16:19-17:14). Rav Yehuda Shaviv suggests the problem that our rabbis might very well have faced when selecting a fitting nevuah to reflect on the primary theme of the parsha. There are certainly many perakim in the sifrei nevuah that are filled with warnings, punishments and chastisements. But how insensitive (and perhaps even senseless) to have our nation read yet another source that lists only tragedies that could—and over the years did—befall the Jewish people. How terrible to establish a practice of reading a litany of tragedies to the generation living through the Crusades, or the Black Death, or the Inquisition, or Chmelnicki, or the Cossaks or the pogroms or the Holocaust…and on and on!
And so, Chazal chose a selection that Yirmiyahu, the prophet of the Churban, delivered to a sinful nation, because, in the middle of the condemnation, after cursing the individual who abandons God (“arur hagever”), he blesses the one who remains faithful to Him (“baruch hagever”). And this, of course, is what the Torah does as well.
The mitzvah of tochacha is found in Vayikra (19:17) where we are commanded not to harbor hatred against another but rather “hoche’ach toche’ach at amitecha,” you must surely admonish your fellow. That pasuk ends with a curious statement: “v’lo tisa alav chet,” “and you should not bear a sin because of him.” Mary parshanim discuss the meaning of that phrase and how it connects to the beginning of the verse. I was especially moved by the simple explanation given by the Ramban who explains that, without your reproof, the sinner will continue the sin and therefore you will “bear” his sin, taking some of the blame.
What impressed me about this approach was the implication of this warning: if you do not reproach one who would cease from his sinning, if you allow him to continue in his sinful ways, then you really don’t care about him and you prefer to continue harboring hatred against him. Just like Hashem’s tochacha, reproof must come from a place of caring and of love. It must come from a person who, the other knows, could never harbor hatred against him.
Is it any wonder that the very next pasuk teaches us “V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha,” to love our neighbor?
It surely is, as Rabbi Akiva taught us, a “klal gadol baTorah,” an important principle in the Torah.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.