June 16, 2024
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Tochacha: The Prelude to Bracha

Parshas Bechukotai

Listening to the Torah reading this week can be a rather difficult challenge. The previous parsha of Behar delineates the various mitzvot incumbent upon Israel to observe upon their entry to the land, including the laws of shemitah (sabbatical) and of yovel (jubilee), as well as the proper regulations regarding the sale and redemption of ancestral estates. In short, the parsha lays down these requirements in order to impress upon the nation the inherent sanctity of the land—and the privilege they were granted to live there. In contrast to that theme, this week’s parsha of Bechukotai focuses on the punishments and eventual exile from the land were the people to ignore the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, by failing to observe those laws. The theme of this parsha, therefore, centers on the consequences that would befall Israel were they to disregard the very regulations set out in last week’s parsha and, by doing so, deny the inherent sanctity of the land.

First, a parsha of promise and success and now, a parsha of punishment and doom. Furthermore, we might rightfully be puzzled by the choice of our ancients to read the 16th and 17th perakim of sefer Yirmiyahu for our haftarah. The theme of these chapters focuses upon the tochacha (admonition) portion of Bechukotai, with the Navi’s harsh words assailing the sins of the people. The prophet’s forewarnings: “Chatat Yehuda ketuva be’et barzel—The sin of Yehuda is written with a pen of iron,” or “Veha’avad’ticha et oyvecha baaretz asher lo yadta—“I will force you to serve your enemies in an unfamiliar land …” and “Ki esh kedachtem beapi, ad olam tukad— … for the fire you have kindled in My anger will glow into the future,”—predict an almost unending era of suffering in the diaspora. These are not messages that we would expect to hear as an “epilogue” to the last parsha of sefer Vayikra, the book that centers on holiness, purity and the ritual service to Hashem.

With these disconcerting thoughts, I turned to HaRav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch who sees this haftarah in a totally different light. “Hashem uzi u’mauzi,” the opening words of the haftarah, praising Hashem as the Navi’s “strength and refuge,” sets the tone for the entire haftarah, argues Rav Hirsch. Yirmiyahu—who was witness to the destruction of the Mikdash and the galut (exile) of his people—nonetheless glorifies God as his “strength” and his “refuge,” because he does not see the galut experience simply as a punishment but as a prelude to the great redemption.

Rav Hirsch writes:

“God, who made this powerless, helpless, abandoned … people triumphant, and Who gave them indomitable independence and endurance … and always accorded them refuge and salvation in every hour of danger … will ultimately gather all the nations to Him.”

In the eyes of Rav Hirsch, our haftarah is not a reflection of the tochacha in the parsha, but it’s very antithesis! Our early scholars chose this very haftarah in order to offer the future generations some comfort—after having just heard God’s frightening words of admonition in the Torah reading. Israel’s survival of the galut—with all of its sufferings, its pogroms, its ghettos—will prove that Hashem is, indeed, “Uzi umauzi—our ultimate power and refuge.” The terrible tochacha of the parsha should be seen as the precursor to the magnificent Geula!

And, when we see the haftarah as Rav Hirsch does, if we regard the parsha’s admonitions as part of the redemption process, we will be able to return to our tefillot praising Hashem, in a proper, more positive frame of mind. I hope that we all will!


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

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