“The sound of a driven leaf shall chase them”. A few verses at the beginning of the sedra describe the happiness which obedience to God’s laws will bring. These are followed by a long Tokhehah (reprimand), invoking in horrific detail the curses which will follow disobedience – disease, defeat, famine, wild beasts, siege and exile. But at the end there is hope: while the land lies desolate, the people will confess their sin, and God will remember them.
The Baal Kore mumbles through the Tokhehah. Joshua Trachtenberg (Jewish Magic and Superstition, 1979) recounts that in some congregations, it was the custom not to call anyone up by name, but an invitation was extended to “whoever wished” to accept it. In Mainz the practice was to stipulate, when employing a shammas, that he must read this parasha when no-one else was willing to do so.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer (Entering Torah, 2009) describes these verses as “problematic”. Are we to take them to mean that every time there is a national tragedy, this is a punishment from God – for example, blaming faulty mezuzot for terrorist attacks, or interpreting the Shoah as God’s punishment for secularism or Zionism?
The Tokhehah in Bekhukotai is paralleled by a more lengthy recital of blessings and curses in sedra Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy ch. 28). The medieval commentator Nahmanides (Ramban) suggested that the passage in Bekhukotai alluded to the Babylonian exile and subsequent return to Eretz Israel, whereas Ki Tavo described the present exile and foreshadowed the future return. Arriving in Eretz Israel towards the end of his life, he found it devastated by the recent invasion of the Mongols but, paradoxically, derived comfort from this because “in all our exiles, our Land will not accept our enemies…..in the whole inhabited part of the world one cannot find such a ‘good and large land’ which was always lived in and yet is as ruined as it is today, for since the time that we left it, it has not accepted any nation or people, and they all try to settle in it, but to no avail.”
Now that the state of Israel exists and the land has been restored to fruitfulness, how should we see the promises and warnings in Bekhukotai and Ki Tavo? Should we assume that the curses have been lifted, that God has reinstated us? To do so would be as problematic as to attribute terrorist attacks to the failure to observe mitzvot. One is tempted to adopt the title of a lecture recently given by Elie Jesner to the Friends of Louis Jacobs: “Can Judaism survive the return to Zion?”
Perhaps another approach might be to compose a beracha, to be recited when the sidrot Bekhukotai and Ki Tavo are read: to thank God for the gift of Torah and to pray that, in Eretz Israel and throughout the world, we behave with the justice and compassion which the Torah demands.
Michael Rose, a retired solicitor, is a co-founder of New North London Synagogue and a Vice President of Masorti Judaism.