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Bechukosai

Parshas  Bechukoisai: How Does the Torah Define the Jewish Nation?

This week we read the tochacha – words of rebuke- which record in great detail the catastrophic events that will heaven forbid come to pass upon the Children of Israel if they stray from the ways of the Torah. In the middle of this reading there is however a pasuk that seems to out of place in the context of the passage. The Torah [1] says   וזכרתי את בריתי יעקוב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכר וכו’ – I (Hashem) will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham. This verse appears to offer consolation to the children of Israel in the midst of describing the calamities that will befall them.

The Sheloh HaKadosh [2] notably answers that this pasuk in the middle of the rebuke is not meant as an amelioration of their suffering but rather to stress the depth of the depravity of rejection of Hashem’s Torah and to explain why such a severe comeuppance is justified. The sin of a man whose father was righteous is more severe than that of an evil man whose father was also evil. The son of a father who was a tzadik should have learned from his father’s ways as opposed to the son of rasha – a wicked man- who did not have a proper role model. This is what the pasuk is coming to teach; Hashem rebukes Israel for the severity of their evil ways considering the enduring relationship between their forefathers and Hashem. He goes on to say: “I will take these things into account against you, that you are of the seed of holy patriarchs – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and despite all that, you did not walk in the path of righteousness”.

On a different note, I would like to suggest an alternative understanding to this pasuk. The Maharal [3] [4] goes to great lengths to show that although our forefather Avraham was in himself worthy of receiving the Torah, this did not happen because the Torah could only be given to an entire nation. The Torah is not given to individuals; it must be given to a people. The primary justification for the existence of the Jewish people is as the Torah nation. Ultimately one cannot be a Jew on his own. A Jew can only study Torah, pray, and perform Hashem’s many other commandments as part of Bnei Yisroel, a nation which consists of people who together form one entity. The individuals within this nation are akin to the cells of one organism.

With this understanding we can fully appreciate our connection to the Torah for after all, those generations who came after Sinai never physically said “נעשה ונשמע – “We will do and we will understand” [5]. We never physically accepted the Torah personally. So what obligates us to fulfill it? What connects us to the Sinaitic experience? We are bound and committed to the Covenant only because we are part of a nation. It was necessary for the entire national commitment, and the unity of the people was critical, as it is written: [6] when Bnei Yisroel where preparing to receive the Torah: ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר  – “Yisroel camped at the foot of the mountain.” Rashi notes that the Hebrew verb used ‘vayichan’ – camped- is conjugated in the verse in singular connoting the unity of the people, that it was “כאיש אחד בלב אחד “ as one man with one heart” . This is the nation that said in unison at Har (Mount) Sinai, “We will do, and we will attend [hear/or understand].”

Today, the Jewish People is still “one man.” It exists today as a nation just as it did thousands of years ago. Individuals die, as do the cells of an organism, but the organism survives with new cells. Although the cells of the organism are different from the organism’s original cells, it is still the same organism. Hashem promised that the Jewish Nation will never perish. The Nation is eternal, and individuals are Jews only because they are part of this eternal Nation. Their serving and relating to Hashem is dependent upon their being part of this Nation. This principle above all, demands that Jews not isolate themselves from their People. They must share in the pain and joy of their fellow Jews, no matter where they are.

What connects us all? The fact that we are all children of Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov; this is what bonds us together. Chazal [7] teach that a person must say מתי יגיע מעשי למעשי אבותי אברהם יצחק ויעקב  – When will my actions approach the level of the actions of my forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov”? Did Chazal actually expect us to reach the spiritual levels of the forefathers? Reb Asher of Stolin [8] answers that the word “yagiu” – approach has the same root as “negiah”, the Hebrew word for “connection” or “touch.” The Medrash is not teaching us that we should aspire to reach the level of our forefathers. Each generation is different and we cannot compare the actions of one generation to the actions of another. Rather, we are taught that our actions must connect with and relate to the actions of our forefathers. We are connected with the Avos when we strive to emulate them. By connecting to our forefathers through our actions, we ultimately connect to the Source of life and draw Hashem’s light into the physical world.

Reb Yissocher Ber of Zolynia [9] took this a step further and proposed that, included in Rabbi Asher’s words is that we must go beyond striving to connect to our forefathers through our actions. If our goal is that our actions and deeds promote the connection to our ancestors it should go without saying that those actions should not cause a מסך המבדיל – a curtain, if you will, that separates us from our forefathers.

This could be the reason why the Torah inserts in the midst of His rebuke, the statement that Hashem will remember the covenant He made with our forefathers. It is indeed a consolation. We are reminded that we are sometimes required to endure hardship precisely because we are required to be connected with our forefathers. We are consoled because we are not selected as individuals to bear pain in solitude, but rather as the descendants of our illustrious ancestors, as part of the great nation of Israel. If, heaven forbid, Israel as a nation is going through hardship, it is so because we are all connected through our common heritage. Our common travails are indicative of the covenant Hashem made with Avrahom, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.

By remarking upon His covenant with our ancestors in the midst of his rebuke, Hashem is advising us that he will always remember that we are His Torah nation.

Perhaps this also provides a solution to the question that is addressed by several commentators. Why are of the forefathers mentioned in the rebuke passage listed in reverse chronological order? “I (Hashem) will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham”? One would expect that the listing would begin with Avraham and conclude with Yaakov. What is the significance of the Torah reporting the “Avos” in reverse order? Additionally, Rashi notes that this is one of the instances that the name Yaakov is spelled out fully יעקוב   rather then יעקב as it is usually spelled (it has the seemingly superfluous letter vav).

These two things may be interconnected. The fact that we are all descendants of Yaakov is what distinguishes us from the rest of the nations of the world. Avraham bore Yishmael as well as Yitzchock, and Yitzchock, too, had Esav in addition to Yaakov. The bond we share with all other Jews is essentially based on the fact that we are all children of Yaakov, a claim unique to the Jewish people. This is why the pasuk here begins the order backwards from Yaakov and also why Yaakov’s name is spelled fully, to emphasize that we are alone among nations and solely the children of Yaakov. This is the tie that binds us together.

Please feel free to forward this Torah thought to anyone you feel will take pleasure in reading it. Feel free to contact me at Rabbisochet@gmail.com with any questions and comments.

Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Dovid Sochet

[1] Vayikra / Leviticus 26:42

[2] Rabbi Yeshaye Halevi Horowitz (1558-1630) Rabbi Yeshaye Halevi Horowitz is famous as the “Sheloh Hakodosh” (the saintly Sheloh) because of his great work,Shnei Luehos Habris (SheLoH is the acronym of this). \He held Rabbinical positions in various communities such as Dubno, Ostraha, Posen, Cracow, Vienna and Frankfurt, where he headed great Yeshivas and had large numbers of students. He authored the Sheloh Hakodosh, the Siddur “Shaar Hashomayim” with explanations of the Prayers. Rabbi Isaiah also composed other works, including Sefer Mitzvos and Tefillin.

[3] Rabbi Yehudah Lowey (1512- 1609),

[4] Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael, Ch. 17

[5] Shemos Exodus 19:8

[6] Shemos / Exodus 19:2

[7] Tana D’bei Eliyahu 25

[8] Rabbi Yissachar Ber Liefer 1920-2008, as brought in his Sefer She’ires Yaakov (still in manuscript).

[9] Reb Asher of Stolin (the 1st), 1760-1828. He was the son of Reb Aharon HaGadol of Karlin. He was the third Rebbe of the Karlin-Stolin dynasty, and the first to have his residence in Stolin.