Swallowing the Bitter Pill of Rebuke

“I will remember in their favor the covenant with the elders, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, the Lord” (Vayikra 26, 45).

Though I usually look forward to hearing the parsha read in shul on Shabbat morning, there are two weeks a year when I find myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat: Ki Tavo in Devarim, and Bechukotai, this week’s parsha. These two parshas share the common theme of tochacha, or rebuke, and the images of horror and loss that the text paints are nothing short of terrifying. 

Maybe the most devastating part of reading them today is not the fear of them coming to fruition, but the realization that we have not been spared even one of them over our long history. It’s a sobering and heart-breaking thought, and difficult to accept.

Why must the rebuke be so harsh, and the punishments so drastic? If God loves us and wants to dwell amongst us, then why are these threats so severe?

Even if we admit that we’re unable to fully understand God’s ways and the severity of punishments listed, is there an opening to start to address this question?

The parsha begins with promises made by G-d, first the blessings if we keep the laws, followed by the curses. The blessings promise incredible physical abundance and security from Israel’s enemies, and end with a Divine promise that expresses the closeness and connection between God and Israel:

“I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people” (Vayikra 26, 11-12).

And then the text turns to 36 painful verses filled with rebuke and curses which increase in severity. They start with the threat of sickness, and end with total destruction of the Land of Israel and the exile of the entire Jewish people. 

But that is not the end of the story; the rebuke ends with another promise, one that expresses the essential relationship between God and the Jewish people:

“Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the elders, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, the Lord” (Vayikra 26, 44-45).

It’s important to see the curses in the context of the blessings as well; and we should also look closely at the passages just before this section, where we are reminded of our Divine mission. God took us out of Egypt not only to free us from bondage, but to be God’s workers:

“For it is to Me that the Israelites are laborers: they are My workers, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God” (Vayikra 25,55).

Our service to God encompasses the totality of our lives, both on an individual and national level in the three areas that are mentioned and beyond. The unique relationship that we have with God not only means that we have rules and tasks exclusive to us, but also that we are held to a higher standard. It’s more than saying that there are consequences to our actions; there is Divine significance to the mitzvot in the Torah. As God’s emissaries in the world, the stakes are high; the reward is great, and the punishment is equal in its magnitude.

But is the punishment fair? The Maharal points out that just as the reward that Am Yisrael receives is out of proportion, so too is their punishment. And just as we can look through our painful history and connect the tragedies one after another, so too we can see the incredible miracles that we’ve experienced, especially since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and our return to Jerusalem in 1967. No nation has returned to their national homeland after 2,000 years of exile.

And this brings us back to the end of the section of blessings and curses; no matter what, the unique relationship between God and Israel is eternal: 

“Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God” (Vayikra 26,44).

Here the final statement of “I the Lord am their God” describes the existential state of the relationship. God is Israel’s God, and the relationship is one that has responsibility. But no matter how poor our behavior, no matter how far we stray from the Torah, the relationship is eternal. “I the Lord am your God.” 

Though our questions about reward and punishment will never be fully answered, and we may not come to peace with the rebuke in the parsha, we can find strength in the final words of the section: “I the Lord am your God.” The text tells us that no matter what, God does want to dwell amongst us. No matter what, the Jewish people will never perish. And no matter what, God will always be our God. 

In memory of the 45 who died on Mt. Meron, and Yehuda Guetta, who was killed in a terror shooting this week.

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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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