Parashat Bechukotai is best known for the tochecha – admonition – in which Hashem describes in great detail the horrors that will Heaven forbid befall Am Yisrael if we forsake the Torah. Near the end of the tochecha Hashem consoles Am Yisrael [Vayikra 26:42]: “I will remember My covenant [with] Yaakov, and also My covenant [with] Yitzchak, and also My covenant [with] Avraham I will remember. And I will remember the Land [of Israel]”. While most of the tochecha is read in a quiet voice[1], this particular verse is read aloud.

Rav Yeshaya Horowitz, known as the Shelah HaKadosh[2], teaches that this verse is not a consolation, but, rather, is part of the tochecha, explaining it as follows: “I remember Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, who obeyed my every command, who negated themselves before me. Now look what horrific deeds their children have done!” You had good parents and a good upbringing, and yet you still strayed from the path. The explanation of the Shelah is definitely appealing. Notice that the “I will remember My covenant” verse is immediately followed by a verse spewing fire and brimstone [Vayikra 26:43]: “The Land will be bereft of [Am Yisrael], appeasing its sabbaticals when it had been desolate of them, and they will gain appeasement for their iniquity. In retribution for having despised My ordinances and in retribution for having rejected My statutes”. This verse is clearly a continuation of the last words in the previous verse – “and I will remember the Land”. Hashem will remember how Am Yisrael mistreated the land[3], and for this reason they will be thrown off the very same land. Consolation begins with the next verse [Vayikra 26:44]: “Despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am Hashem their God”.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, is perturbed by the explanation of the Shelah. The “I will remember My covenant” verse is included in the Mussaf Amidah of Rosh HaShanah as one of the ten verses of “Zichronot” that tell of how Hashem remembers Am Yisrael and so will hopefully inscribe us for a good year. Why would we include a verse in Zichronot that is essentially saying that our actions have besmirched our forefathers? Is this something that we want Hashem to remember? Indeed, the Talmud in Tractate Rosh HaShanah [32b] teaches that the verses of Zichronot [4]should include only verses with “good” meanings, and even then, only verses that were not stated in anger. While Rav Sorotzkin leaves his question unanswered, it turns out that in the Machzor of Rav Amram Gaon, written about 1200 years ago, the “I will remember My covenant” verse is not included in Zichronot. It is replaced with a verse from the Egyptian Exodus [Shemot 2:24] “Hashem heard their cry, and Hashem remembered His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov”.

The Shelah, however, remains problematic. Why, according to his explanation, is “I will remember My covenant” included in the Rosh HaShanah Amida?

Rav Sorotzkin starts us down a road to an answer by addressing a different question. What is the covenant that Hashem made with Yaakov? Rav Sorotzkin answers by pointing us at a verse in the beginning of Parashat Vayetze. Yaakov is on the run from his brother, Esav, whose blessing he has just stolen. Yaakov falls asleep and has a famous dream in which he sees angels going up and down a ladder that connects heaven and earth. Hashem appears to Yaakov in his dream and tells him [Bereishit 28:15] “Behold, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you”. What is this “what I have spoken concerning you”? While the Rashbam explains that Hashem is referring to what He has just promised Yaakov in the previous verses[5], Rashi opens the aperture far wider, explaining that Hashem is referring to a promise that He made years earlier to Avraham [Bereishit 15:18]: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River”. Hashem’s covenant with Yaakov is a continuation of His covenant with Avraham, telling him that he – Yaakov[6] – will be the descendant of Avraham who merits inheriting the Land of Israel.

What does Hashem mean when He tells Yaakov that He will guard him “wherever you go”? To answer this question we’ll ask another question: What did the Jews in Egypt do to merit redemption? According to the Midrash they kept their Hebrew names, they spoke Hebrew, and they wore traditional Jewish clothing. I posit that they did these things not out of righteousness, but because the Egyptians would not allow them to wear Egyptian clothing or to speak Egyptian[7]. Whatever the case may be, in every other respect the Jews were no different than the Egyptians. They were just as idolatrous and they committed the exact same “abominations”[8]. And yet Hashem still found justification to take them out of Egypt and into the Land of Israel. When Hashem promises Yaakov that he will keep His end of the bargain “wherever you are”, it means that no matter how low his descendants sink, Hashem will never forget them or replace them. This is a Divine promise that can never be abrogated. At the end of the day, it’s not a matter of who we are, but who we come from.

Now we can understand why we include “I will remember My covenant” in the Zichronot section of the Rosh HaShanah Amida. Of course we want Hashem to remember how wonderful we’ve been, and in reciprocation to grant us a wonderful year. But what happens if we as a nation do not merit a wonderful year? What if we, like our ancestors in Egypt, do not deserve redemption? In such a case, we ask Hashem to remember the words He uttered so many years ago to our forefather, Yaakov. We beg Hashem to remember how He swore He would never leave us, wherever we are, no matter how low we have sunk. We do not ask this of Hashem proudly. But if Hashem’s promise is the only thing that lies between us and the dustbin of history, then we will unabashedly invoke it.

When we look at the blessing for Zichronot, it is clear that this explanation makes a whole lot of sense: “Hashem, remember for our benefit Your love of our forefathers, the covenant, the kindness, and Your promise to Avraham on Mount Moriah… so may Your mercy overcome Your anger towards us… [towards] Your city, Your land and Your inheritance. May you uphold that which You promised in Your Torah “I will remember for [their benefit] the covenant [I made with] the ancestors, whom I took out from the land of Egypt [even though they were not worthy] before the eyes of the nations, to be a God to them [so that they would one day become worthy]. I am Hashem [Who keeps my promise, no matter how vile you have become]. Blessed are You, Who remembers the covenant.”

And let us say “Amen”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] My Rav and my teacher Rabbi Silberman told me that the tochecha is read in a low voice as a sign of mourning, similar to the way the Megilla of Eichah is read on Tisha b’Av. It should most definitely not be read quickly as it contains a warning which we must hear.

[2][2] I have no idea why certain Rabbis merit the word “HaKadosh” (The Holy One) after their names. Other such Rabbis include the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh and Rabbeinu HaKadosh (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi). The Talmud in Tractate Niddah [14a] teaches that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi earned his title by never placing his hand below his belt. As for other Rabbis, the reason is less clear.

[3] They mistreated the land by not keeping Shemitta.

[4] Malchuyot and Shofarot operate by the same rules.

[5] Hashem promised Yaakov that he would be safe from Esav’s ire.

[6] The inheritance would go to Yaakov, and not Esav, or for that matter, Avraham’s son Yishmael.

[7] The Romans did the react same thing, forbidding the Jews in Israel to wear techelet, the sky blue fringe on their tzitzit, because it was considered a “royal” colour.

[8] See, for example, Vayikra [18:3].