Is Galus a Punishment?

V’eschem ezareh bagoyim v’harikosi achareichem cherev v’haysa artzechem shemama v’areichem yihyu charba (Vayikra 26:33)

Parashas Bechukosai is commonly referred to as a parashah of tochachah — rebuke. After discussing the abundant blessings we will merit if we study Torah diligently and fulfill the mitzvos, the Torah continues to say that if we fail to observe the commandments and behave casually with Hashem, He will punish us with unspeakable suffering and numerous curses.

One of these curses is that we will be scattered amongst the nations, while Eretz Yisrael becomes desolate and our cities turn into ruins. Similarly, in Parashas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:27), the Torah warns that if we worship idols and forsake our covenant with Hashem, He will respond by removing us from our land with anger, wrath, and great fury. From this perspective, it seems clear that galus (exile) is a punishment.

On the other hand, Harav Yisroel Reisman points out that the Gemara (Pesachim 87b) does not seem to view exile in such gloomy terms, teaching that the only reason we were sent into galus was for the purpose of enabling holy souls from the nations of the world to convert to Judaism. From this point of view, the concept of exile does not seem harsh and punitive, but rather constructive and purposeful.

In his sefer Iyun Tefillah (pg. 169-170), Harav Shimon Schwab explains that the Written Torah embodies Hashem’s middas hadin (Attribute of Justice), while the Oral Torah represents His middas harachamim (Attribute of Mercy), and for this reason the Gemara often refers to Hashem as Rachmana — the Merciful One.

To illustrate this distinction, he notes that the Torah — the Written Law — stipulates (Shemos 21:24) that if someone injures another person, the appropriate punishment is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot. However, although the strict letter of the law warrants such exacting retribution, the Gemara — the Oral Law — balances this approach with considerations of mercy and compassion and teaches (Bava Kamma 84a) that instead of losing an actual limb, it is sufficient for the person who caused the damage to reimburse the victim for the value of the harm that he caused.

Rav Reisman adds that we also find this difference between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah with respect to descriptions and interpretations of episodes that occurred. For example, the Torah (Bereishis 35:22) appears to say that Reuven committed a grave sin with regard to Bilhah, who was one of his father’s wives, and in Nach, Dovid is presented (Shmuel 2:11) as having sinned with regard to Batsheva, and then arranging for the death of her husband. In contrast to the strict viewpoint of the Written Torah, the Gemara (Shabbos 55b-56a) views these incidents through the additional lens of Divine mercy, and teaches that whoever says that Reuven and Dovid sinned is woefully mistaken.

Dovid Hamelech writes (Tehillim 149:7-9) that Hashem will come against the nations of the world to execute vengeance with mishpat kasuv — written judgment. What is the significance of the fact that the judgment will be written? Rav Schwab explains that written judgment represents middas hadin, and therefore Dovid emphasizes that Hashem will specifically utilize this strict approach when judging and punishing them. For the same reason, Hashem instructed Moshe regarding Amalek (Shemos 17:14): Kesov zos zikaron ba’sefer — write this as a remembrance in the Torah, because this ensures that Amalek will be erased and destroyed with harsh Divine judgment.

With this understanding of the dichotomy between the Written Law and the Oral Law, Rav Reisman suggests that we can now appreciate that all the references to galus functioning as a bitter punishment are found in Tanach — the Written Law — as the perspective of the middas hadin is that when the Jewish people sin, they deserve to be punished and exiled from their land.

The Talmudic approach to galus, on the other hand, mixes in an acknowledgment of Hashem’s middas harachamim, and when seen through this lens, there are indeed positive benefits to be gleaned, even in such difficult and painful circumstances.

Q: A healthy Jewish adult who is not in the middle of davening, saying a brachah, or eating and is not improperly dressed, in an impure place, or mourning the death of a close relative hears a proper brachah recited live by another observant Jewish adult, yet he is exempt from answering “Amen.” How is this possible?

A: The Kaf Hachaim rules that if a person hears a brachah while he is in the middle of reading verses that discuss negative topics, such as the words of rebuke in Parashas Bechukosai or Parashas Ki Savo, he is exempt from answering “Amen,” for it would appear as if he were answering “Amen” to accept the curses upon himself. He adds that if possible, one should attempt to speed up or delay reading such verses to avoid being unable to answer “Amen” to another person’s brachah.

Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer Papo writes that if he heard a brachah while he was saying the words in Aleinu “She’hem mishtachavim l’hevel va’rik u’mispallelim el el lo yoshia — the nations of the world bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god that does not save — he did not say “Amen” so as to avoid the appearance of answering “Amen” to the false gods he had just mentioned. However, Rabbi Eliyahu Mani argues that if Chazal did not mention such exceptions, later authorities lack the ability to exempt us from answering “Amen” based on their own concerns.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.