Parashat Behar Bechukotai 5781
by Meir Sendor
We are still reeling from the tragedy at Meron on Lag BaOmer. When Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon HaKohen, died in the midst of what they had hoped would be a great spiritual experience, the dedication of the Mishkan, the Torah tells us Aharon’s response: וידום אהרן – Aharon was silent. A silence of inexpressible pain and heartbreak. A silence that is an open, raw, unaskable question. With wakeful silence we embrace the families who lost precious husbands and fathers, precious, precious children. This is not a time for clueless platitudes, for papering over the pain with false fantasies and explanations pretending to know God’s Mind. For the mourning families and suffering injured, just the embrace of attentive silence, compassionate presence.
For the community there is work to do. In the Gemara Berakhot, Rava and Rav Hisda are quoted to say:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ה עמוד א
אמר רבא ואיתימא רב חסדא: אם רואה אדם שיסורין באין עליו – יפשפש במעשיו, שנאמר נחפשה דרכינו ונחקורה ונשובה עד ה’
If a person sees sufferings coming upon him, he should investigate his actions, as it says “let us investigate our ways and examine and return to HaShem (Lamentations 3:40).”
The point is that when troubles come and troubles mount, the response of a true Torah Jew and true Torah community is to take responsibility and look honestly and deeply at our own actions and inactions and their consequences that are contributing to the troubles, make the necessary changes and return to HaShem. Sectors of the Torah community have been taking hit after hit over the last year and more, with massive deaths from the pandemic and now this. It’s time to investigate our ways and examine and really return to HaShem. But this investigation and examination and change of ways and return to HaShem needs to be honest and wise and in touch with reality.
The line in some communities is that this tragedy was a divine decree that even Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose yahrzeit was being celebrated at his gravesite in Meron, could not avert. That’s an irresponsible evasion. Maimonides says pointedly in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:12):
We suffer because of evils that we have produced ourselves of our own free will, but we attribute them to God, may He be exalted above this. As God explains is His Book, saying “is the corruption His? No, the blemish is His sons, a perverse and crooked generation (Dt. 32:5).” Solomon also has explained this, saying “the foolishness of man perverts his way, yet his heart is upset with HaShem (Prv. 19:3).”
By all reports, the deaths and injuries at Meron were a result of longstanding human mismanagement, corruption, venality and arrogance among supposed religious and political leaders, who continually blocked proper improvements to infrastructure to accommodate the enormous crowds that gather for there for Lag BaOmer, while egging on ever more people to attend and opposing all attempts at limitation and control. Experts have warned of disaster for decades, and were consistently ignored and derided. To try to foist this on God and Rabbi Shimon is impious as well as irresponsible. There have been other foolish statements of blame by some religious leaders that don’t deserve mention.
In the Mishnah Avot (2:9), the great Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his top students “what is the straight path that a person should adhere to?” Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, yes, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, says “to see what is born,” that is, to see and understand the full consequences of our actions and inactions. Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, in his commentary Magen Avot, explains:
מה שהוא היום טוב אינו טוב למחר כי ישתנו הדברים, וכמו שאמר הכתוב ‘אל תתהלל ביום מחר כי לא תדע מה ילד יום’ [משלי כז א], והרואה את הנולד ומרחוק יריח מה שאפשר להיות, הוא נשמר מהרבה פגעים ולא יעשה כי אם מה שגלוי אליו, שאי אפשר לו לבוא לידי תקלה,
What is good for today is not good for tomorrow, for things change, as it says “do not boast yourself about tomorrow, for you do not know to what the day will give birth (Prv. 27:1).” One who sees what “gets born” senses from a distance what can possibly occur, so he is protected from many injuries and does not do anything but that about which he is clear that it will not possibly to lead to harm.
This is not only Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s good advice, it’s a mitzvah of the Torah. The Torah says:
דברים פרק כב פסוק ח
כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ:
When you build a new house, you shall make a guard-rail for your roof, and do not place blood upon your house lest someone fall from it. (Dt. 22:8).
While the Torah is giving us a specific example, the entire rabbinic tradition understands this as a warning to take precautions against all unsafe situations that endanger human life, as Maimonides makes clear in his discussion of this mitzvah in his great halakhic code Mishneh Torah, in chapter eleven of “Murder and Protection of Life.”
This is the core theme of Parashat Bechukotai: that we are responsible for the blessings and, Heaven forbid, for the troubles that come upon us. The whole world reflects our moral and spiritual comportment, our adherence or deviance from Torah and Mitzvot. The parashah opens:
ויקרא פרק כו
(ג) אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם:
(ד) וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם וְנָתְנָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ יְבוּלָ֔הּ וְעֵ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה יִתֵּ֥ן פִּרְיֽוֹ:
If you will walk in My rules and observe My mitzvot and do them, I will give your rains in their due times and the earth with give forth its abundance and the field will give its fruit.
The Midrash Vayikra Rabbah (35:4) comments:
ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשת בחקותי פרשה לה סימן ד
ד חקים שבהם חקקתי את השמים והארץ שנאמר (ירמיה לג) אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי חקים שבהם חקקתי את השמש ואת הירח שנאמר (שם /ירמיהו/ לא) כה אמר ה’ נותן שמש לאור יומם חקת ירח וכוכבים לאור לילה חקות שבהם חקקתי את הים שנא’ (משלי ח) בשומו לים חקו חוקות שבהם חקקתי את החול שנאמר (ירמיה ה) אשר שמתי חול גבול לים חוקים שבהם חקקתי את התהום שנאמר (משלי ח) בחוקו חוג על פני תהום חוק וחוג לגזירה שוה.
“My rules…” The rules by which I decree the heavens and the earth, as it says “if it were not for My covenant day and night, I would not have set the rules of heaven and earth (Jer. 31).” The rules by which I decree the sun and moon… The rules by which I decreed the sea… The rules by which I decreed the sand… The rules by which I decreed the deep…
Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzovsky, ztz”l, the late Slonimer Rebbe, one of the truly wise leaders of the last generation, expounds the midrash:
The Holy One, blessed be He, created the entire work of heaven and earth according to rules… The least slight deviation, even a hair’s breadth, from the order of Creation can cause the destruction of the world, for the existence of Creation depends on its rules and its order. The root of all the rules are the rules of the Torah, for the Holy One, blessed be He, made the natural world such that all the rules of Creation depend on Israel fulfilling the rules of the Torah… On this basis, it’s clear that the meaning of “If you walk in My rules…I will give your rain in its due time,” is not that this is some kind of reward for mitzvot, rather it is the reality and the order of Creation. If we keep the rules of Torah, then measure for measure the rules of Creation and nature will be kept. And so, too, the opposite, “if you do not listen to Me, and you abhor My rules,” the rules of Creation will be spoiled, for there is no greater destruction than this, that the rules of Creation are nullified and spoiled… If we do not keep the rules of the Torah, then one’s body does not fulfill the laws of nature and the order of Creation. (Netivot Shalom, Vayikra, Bechukotai, sec. 1, p.131).
The Rebbe’s point is that we live in a moral, spiritual and physical ecosystem. There’s an intrinsic relationship between our moral and spiritual behavior and the natural world. It’s not magical thinking and it’s not reward and punishment – it’s a reality that when we are careful and thoughtful in our behavior, comprehensively following the rules of Torah, the Torah of Life, that attune us to realistic, wise and healthy life in this world, then life goes well for everyone. If not, if we behave recklessly and thoughtlessly, out of ignorance of Torah, ignorance of reality or stubborn arrogance, we bring disaster on ourselves and others.
HaShem is communicating with us at every moment, giving us feedback and guidance to improve our way of life. This communication is via the natural world, reflecting our behavior through weather and the agricultural cycle and our relations with the animal world; it’s via the human social and political world, reflecting our behavior through peace or conflict in the community or between nations; it’s through every event and encounter in our lives. Sometimes the messages are subtle. Sometimes they can’t be missed. Right now, the Torah community in Israel is being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. Are we paying attention? Forty-five precious individual husbands, fathers, children were killed. Our community must do deep, deep soul searching and repair, to the very core.
There’s a special alleyway in the Old City of Tzfat which gives you a straight sightline to Meron. It’s called the Alley of the Mashiach and it’s very, very narrow. The tradition around here is that when the Mashiach comes, he will come from Meron to Tzfat through this alleyway, this straight, narrow path. It’s time for us all to straighten our paths in Torah, to straighten the path towards the Mashiach.