We Never Lose Our Value

Dabeir el Bnei Yisrael v’amarta aleihem ish ki yaflee neder b’erkecha nefashos l’Hashem (Vayikra 27:2)

This week we conclude Sefer Vayikra with Parashas Bechukosai, which is commonly referred to as the parashah of tochachah — rebuke. It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah’s laws. Each curse seems worse than the one before it, and indeed, throughout the generations it has always been a challenge to find someone willing to be called to the Torah for the aliyah in which these verses are read.

However, it is curious to note that after concluding this terrifying and frightening section of rebuke, the parashah abruptly switches to a section dealing with the laws of arachin — the dedication of the value of oneself or another person to the Temple. This section seems completely misplaced. What is the relevance of these laws to the rebuke which dominates the rest of the parashah?

Harav Mordechai Kamenetzky recounts an inspiring story which will shed some light on this question. During the Holocaust, when many of the horrifying curses of this week’s parashah were manifested before our very eyes, the Germans took a particularly sadistic pleasure in torturing and tormenting the great Rabbis who served as teachers and inspiration for the Jewish people. The suffering endured by these righteous leaders is unfathomable.

In one particularly gruesome incident, a number of merciless Nazi officers beat the Klausenburger Rebbe, zy”a, to the brink of death. After administering seemingly endless blows, the officers asked the bleeding and only semi-conscious Rebbe if after all of this suffering he still believed that the Jews are G-d’s chosen people. He responded unequivocally in the affirmative.

Amazed at the Rebbe’s seemingly naïve and misplaced faith, they pressed him for an explanation. He replied, “As long as I am not the cruel oppressor of innocent victims, and as long as I am the one down here on the ground maintaining my unwavering faith in my principles and traditions, I am still able to raise my head proudly and know that G-d chose our people.”

Applying the lesson of this story to our original question, the Kotzker Rebbe, zy”a, explains that after reading the terrifying curses contained earlier in the parashah and seeing how they have tragically been fulfilled throughout history, Jews may begin to lose belief in their value and self-worth. As a nation, we have been persecuted more than any other people throughout the ages. Such intense national suffering could easily cause a person to give up hope.

In order to counter this mistaken conclusion, the section outlining the painful times which will befall the Jewish people is immediately followed by the section dealing with the laws of arachin. This section details how much a person is required to donate if he chooses to dedicate the “value” of himself or another Jew to the Temple. This juxtaposition comes to remind us that even in the darkest times, after enduring the most inhumane suffering fathomable, although we may not be accorded respect by our oppressors, our intrinsic worth in Hashem’s eyes is eternal and unchanging.

Q: There is a Talmudic maxim (Kiddushin 39b) that s’char mitzvah b’hai alma leika — Hashem does not give a person reward in this world for the mitzvos that he does. How can Parashas Bechukosai begin by stating that if the Jews study Torah and perform the mitzvos properly, Hashem will bless them in this world?

Q: The rebuke contained in Parashas Bechukosai concludes with words of comfort (26:42–45), in contrast to that in Parashas Ki Savo which contains no such consolation. What is the explanation for this difference?

A: The Rambam explains that although a person who properly performs the mitzvos will receive the blessings which are promised by the Torah, these are not considered his full and primary reward, which he will only receive in the World to Come. However, when Hashem sees that a person is utilizing all of his energy and talents to study Torah and do mitzvos, He removes from that person all of the obstacles to his service of Hashem, such as sickness, war and hunger, and He bestows upon him blessings, such as wealth, peace and health, that will enable him to spend all of his time performing mitzvos. In other words, Hashem promises good fortune not as the reward for a person’s mitzvos, but as a means to free the righteous from mundane distractions and obligations so that they can continue to do even more mitzvos in the future.

A: The Ponovezer Rav explains that Chazal teach that the rebuke contained in Parashas Bechukosai is directed at the entire nation, while the one in Parashas Ki Savo is addressed to each individual. For this reason, only our parashah concludes with words of comfort and consolation, as there is a promise that the Jewish people will always continue to exist. Because Parashas Ki Savo is speaking to individuals, who have no such guarantees, it cannot end off in that manner. Alternatively, Harav Meir Tzvi Bergman, shlita, answers that Parashas Bechukosai emphasizes (see 26:23–24) that the punishments are due to the fact that we treat Hashem in a casual manner, which causes Him to reciprocate. The inability to recognize Hashem’s direct involvement is a tremendous punishment, and it must be followed by words of comfort. Parashas Ki Savo, on the other hand, makes clear that all of the curses will be clearly meted out by Hashem (see Devarim 28:20). If we recognize that the punishments are coming directly from Hashem, this isn’t considered a curse, but a case of a Father correcting the inappropriate behavior of a child, and as a result, no words of consolation are needed at its conclusion.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer 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.