May 28, 2024
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Mourning and Celebration

Parshiyot Behar-Bechukotai

Today’s reading is an especially difficult one to follow. Although the first parsha of Behar teaches laws that pertain to the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, laws that promise the settlement of Israel into their own land (i.e., the regulations of the Shmita and Yovel years, the process of selling and redeeming original family estates as well as the obligation of supporting the poor so that poverty does not force them to sell their estates), the final parsha of Bechukotai dedicates almost half of its pesukim to describing the horrific punishments that would befall Israel if they ignore the laws Hashem commanded them, including the loss of the land. Studying the verses of the “tochacha” is not an easy task—especially for a generation that has seen the fulfillment of so many of these horrific prophecies.

The tannaitic scholars faced an unenviable task of choosing a fitting selection from the nevi’im (prophets) to serve as the haftarah for this parsha. There are ample prophecies in the Tanach that speak of the terrible punishments that would befall the fickle nation, among them are the 16th and 17th perakim of the navi Yirmiyahu, those chosen as this week’s haftarah. It is proper to wonder why, of the many chapters that could have been selected, our rabbis choose these two.

I would suggest that perhaps the rabbanim, in their choice of these chapters, purposely left a subtle message of hope for future generations. The admonition found in the parsha is preceded by a description of the rewards awaiting the faithful and closes with the reassurance that Hashem would remember them and redeem them. The “curses,” therefore, are “sandwiched” in between the comforting words of reward and those of redemption. The navi Yirmiyahu follows that same pattern in the chapters of the haftarah. The opening words mark a break from the preceding prophecies of doom, as Yirmiyahu calls out to his “refuge” and “stronghold,” depicting a time when God will be recognized by all and idolatry would be rejected as falsehood. Only then does the navi go on to condemn Israel. But the words of condemnation are followed by a beautiful description of the reward that awaits the righteous who trust in Hashem. A message of hope that follows the harsh words of criticism.

The truth is that these prophecies, difficult as they are, were meant to bring Israel back to God—not frighten them away. The prophet knows full-well that there must always be hope in his message so that his words will encourage people and not depress them.

We have witnessed the realization of the frightening predictions found both in the parsha and in the haftarah. But we have also begun to see the fruition of the promised blessings and consolations from God. Chazal, through their choice of prophecies, reminded us that curses will be followed by blessings and tragedies would be followed by celebrations.

We have seen the tragedies, and now, in the midst of the Omer mourning period, we are keenly aware of our new days of celebration and we pray that they will harbinger an era of joy and rejoicing.

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler

 Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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