This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Bechukotai (5771)
This week’s Torah portion contains 49 ‘curses’ that G-d threatens the Jewish people with if they transgress the Torah.
They only warn of physical calamities (strangely no mention of hell or eternal perdition) but this certainly should have been sufficient to dissuade anyone from sinning.
But, sadly enough, neither they nor the additional 98 curses found in the Torah portion called Ki Tavo near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy (28:15-69) had much of a dissuading effect; Both Holy Temples were destroyed and we now are suffering a terrible exile for almost 2,000 years because of Jewish stiff-neckedness.
So what is the point of all these threats and curses if they didn’t work anyway? And why isn’t hell mentioned? All the other religions use it … why not in Judaism? Maybe that might have scared them into obedience!
And why are the curses divided into two sections? Why doesn’t the Torah just put all 157 of them in the same Torah portion?
Also, this coming week will be Lag B’Omer; the ‘Yor Tzite’ (day of passing) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai the author of the Zohar. Although he passed away some 1,800 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Jews gather at his grave every year on Lag B’Omer (33 days after Passover) to rejoice and pray on that day.
Is there a connection between these curses and Lag B’Omer and what does it all mean to us?
Here is a story from the book ‘Zohar Chadash' (Parshat Ki Tavo) that tells us a shocking story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son that might answer our questions.
Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar lived in a cave for 13 years. Not because of a housing shortage but because they couldn’t keep quiet about the evil Romans occupation that controlled Israel (and the rest of the world) at that time. The Romans sent soldiers to kill them so they hid for 14 years; first, one year in a synagogue and then for 13 years more in a secret cave in the hills of Northern Israel. The Talmud tells us that it was dangerous for them to venture out of the cave, so miraculously a spring of water and a carob tree appeared to sustain them, and all they did, 24/7 was learn Torah by memory. In fact they became so holy that Elijah the Prophet would visit them twice daily and answer all their Torah questions. But the fact that no one knew where they were to ask them questions was a tragedy.
In one Torah session of their friends in the Holy Committee (great Rabbis called ‘Tannaim’ who actually could enliven the dead!) a frightening question came up which no one could find the answer to:
As we said, there are two places in the Torah that list curses; in Parshat B’chukotai in Leviticus there are 49 and in Parshat Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, twice that number; 98.
It is accepted that the first bunch refer to the First Temple while the latter curses refer to those that accompanied and followed the destruction of the Second Temple 490 years later. (Which explains why the second batch is longer; After the First Temple the exile was only 70 years while after the Second Temple almost 2,000 years has past.)
But suddenly a frightening question arouse; after the first curses there are words of consolation and promises that the Jews will return from exile as it says, “I will remember the covenant of Jacob etc. and although you are in the land of your enemies I will not despise you etc (26:42,45)”
But after the second curses there are no consolations and no promises of rebuilding!
They pondered this for hours and could not find an answer. “The only one that can help us” they concluded, “is Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and his son. But where can we find them?”
The Zohar continues that the next day one of the group, Rebbe Yosi bar Yehuda, saw a formation of birds in the sky followed by a dove. He called to the dove and said; ‘From the time of the flood you were faithful to do your job and you represent the Jewish people please take this question to Rebbe Shimon bar Yochi’. He wrote the question on a paper the dove swooped down, picked it up in its beak and miraculously flew directly to the cave where Rabbi Shimon and his son were sitting and presented them the note.
They opened it, saw it was from the holy committee and began to weep when they remembered their holy friends. But when they calmed down and read the question they began weeping even more broken-heartedly; Rabbi Shimon cried out in pain.
‘Oy OY! What will happen when the later generations ask this question and cannot answer it? Will they not be confused and stop awaiting the redemption!?’ And both of them continued their uncontrollable crying.
Suddenly Elijah the Prophet appeared before them and said;
“Rabbi Shimon and son! Happy are you that G-d has sent me to comfort your sorrow and dry your tears.
“Know that these curses in ‘Ki Tavo’ are really the greatest blessings possible. Indeed, the greatest blessings, rewards and comforts that Israel will receive in the days of Moshiach are hinted at in these apparently harsh sentences.
“It can be compared to a king that loves his only son. Although he may get mad at him, yell at him and even strike him, still he loves him deeply and when he shows hard anger because of his son’s misdeeds then his mercy is really aroused. So The Holy one Blessed be He; although He curses, his words are really in love although they appear to be the opposite.
“In fact they are greatest blessings because these curses are not like the curses in Leviticus which are from severe judgment rather they are in the highest love and severity together. Like a father that loves his son and holds “a strap to hit him and he shouts, screams loudly and even curses but deep inside he loves him and if there are blows they include in them mercy.
“For instance the most severe of these curses is what it says “All the diseases and the plagues that are not written in this book G-d will put away (Ya’alem) upon you until He destroys you.” (Deut. 28:61)
“Here the promises of the father to his son are with the greatest love. The Torah does not say the plagues will put upon you (Ya’aleh) but put away (Ya’alem). Namely G-d will put away and cover the punishments so they should not be revealed but rather be hidden in their source.
“And what is says “Until He destroys you” “Until” means that G-d will never destroy the Jewish people although it might seem that He is about to.
“G-d has already promised “So your seed and your name will stand (Isaiah 66:22) and “Just as you can not measure the heavens and earth so I will never despise Israel”. (Jer. 31;36).
“So since G-d swore that Israel will never be destroyed therefore all these curses and diseases are going to be concealed and will never be revealed to destroy them for this will never happen. G-d is really assuring us here that no matter what we do, He will always love, protect and preserve us. There is no greater blessing than that.
Similarly, the end of the curses it says, “G-d will bring you back to Egypt in ships in the way He said you will never see them again, and you will be sold yourself to your enemies as servants but no one will buy” (28:68).
“‘G-d will bring you back to Egypt’ means that G-d promises that He will do miracles in the future redemption as great or even greater than He did when the Jews left Egypt. As it says, ‘Like the days I took you from Egypt I will show you wonders (Micah 7:15).
“‘In ships’ (Aniot) refers to the poverty (Awniot) that will be in the end of days. And it also hints at the ships that all the enemies of Israel will attack the Jews in with the intention of destroying G-d’s people. But G-d will cause the ships to sink and be destroyed in the sea as occurred to the Egyptians in the ‘Red’ Sea.
“Then there will be fulfilled what is written in Isaiah (43:14) “In ships their rejoicing”. Indeed, since the creation of the world G-d never demonstrated His power as He did when He took the Jews from Egypt. That is what it meant by, “In a way you will never see them again”. We thought there would never be such a revelation again. But in fact in the future redemption G-d will demonstrate even greater power on our enemies but we will be saved.
“This is hinted in the words, “You will be sold ‘YOURSELF.’ Namely that the Jews’ will imagine to themselves they will be sold as slaves but in fact, “But no one will buy” namely the Jews will be unharmed and no one will ever rule over them.
“All this” concluded Elijah, “will be in the end of days and it all depends on the Jews thinking deeply and returning to G-d for it to actually occur sooner.”
When Elijah finished Rebbe Shimon wrote his answer on another paper, gave it to the dove and sent it to the holy committee. When they received it they marveled. “Happy are we that although we do not know the place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai nevertheless we can consult him and he can teach us. Happy is bar Yochi that G-d does miracles through him, he decrees and G-d must fulfill.
From this we have an answer to our questions.
The 49 curses in this week’s section are not like the 98 curses in Deuteronomy, that’s why they are listed separately. After the 48 curses here G-d consoled the Jews and promised that if they repented He would forget the past and try again.
But the 98 curses later on are totally different; they are not meant to be forgotten but to be transformed. Indeed; only though converting them to good can true ‘redemption’ revelation of the Creator in his creation be achieved. That is why hell is not mentioned in any of these 157 curses; because our job is to transform THIS physical world into heaven on earth.
This was the job of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai; to transform these curses into blessings through his mystical teachings in the Zohar; Especially as they are explained today in the teachings of Chabad “Chassidut’ (see your nearest Chabad House for details).
That is why a half million Jews converge on Rebbe Shimon’s grave in Meron every year on the day of his passing. Because on that day, just before leaving this world, he revealed his greatest secrets. In fact he announced that it must be a day of rejoicing; celebrating the transformation of bad to good, darkness to light and bitterness to sweetness (as we saw in our story) and bringing the future redemption.
But it all depends on us now. By learning the ideas of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and adhering to the Torah in joy we can transform the world today!!
One more good deed, word or even thought can tilt the scale, turn over all the world’s problems and bring….
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