Our parsha closes off the sefer of Vayikra and brings to a close the section of the Torah which took place at Har Sinai. In one of the most dramatic and harshest sections of the entire Torah we find the “tochacha”- the warning that is provided to us as to the consequences of not keeping the Torah.
A series of increasingly horrible events will take place if we are to abandon God and the Torah. Disease, famine, war and exile in all of their gory details are enumerated.
It is no wonder that this particular section has been treated extensively in both halachic and aggadic literature, I would like to discuss a few of the issues raised.
How it is to be read-
The Mishna in Megilah lists the “tochacha” (or in the words of the Mishnah “Brachot and Klelalot” Blessings and curses) as the Torah reading for fast days. (The fast days in this context are ones declared by the Bet Din in response to some contemporary disaster such as drought as listed in the Mishnah in Taanit. The set fast days concerning historical events have certain elements in common with this type of fasts but yet differ in many ways. According to the Rambam our practice of reading “veyechal” on fast days is only for the historical ones, however if Bet Din declares a public fast day the “tochacha” should be read. The common practice today is to read “vayechal” on all fast days). The purpose of Torah reading on fast days is to inspire the people to do teshuva. When the audience is provided with such an unpleasant and terrifying scene, which in many ways matches the situation that they find themselves in at present, the mood is set for a public teshuva in order to be able to merit the final pesukim of the “tochacha” where Hashem has mercy upon us.
In discussing this Torah reading the Gemara comments that one is not allowed to stop in the middle of the “tochacha”. There are two reasons provided for this Halacha: According to Rav Asi someone who has read only part of the “klalot” and stops is avoiding rebuke, which is a very bad thing. An individual who is sincere about their avodat Hashem should be only too happy to have someone point out how they are lacking and what can be done to improve themselves. We are taught in Mishle that if one rebukes the wise they create an atmosphere of love while when rebukes the cynic it will only create animosity.
According to Resh Lakish the problem is making a bracha on the “tochacha”. It seems out of place to be able to stand up and make the Birkat Hatorah with the enthusiasm it deserves, praising God for choosing us as his people and having given us his most precious gift, seconds before reading the harsh pesukim in the “tochacha”.
[The gemara asks the obvious question as to what the solution to the bracha problem is and responds that one should add a pasuk (or a few pessukim see Tosfot) before and after the “tochacha” so that the bracha relates to them as well. There seems to have been a minhag in many places that the “tochacha” was actually read without a bracha, i.e. the one who received the aliyah would make the final bracha before the “tochacha” and then the “tochacha” would be read without anyone having made a bracha beforehand. This custom was rejected in the most strong terms by most poskim (see for instance Iggrot Moshe OC 2:35).]
Finally, the gemara tells us that the above discussion is only relevant to this week’s parsha and not to the “tochacha” in Devarim (parshat Ki Tavo). The distinction being that in Vayikra the pronouns used through out the “tochacha” are in the plural and they are a direct quote of God, by Moshe. The “tochacha” in Devarim makes use of the singular through out and is the word of Moshe himself.
[The comparison of the “tochacha” in Devarim and the one in Vayikra is a very interesting exercise and I highly recommend doing it over Shabbat. Especially note the ending of the two “tochcachot” and how they differ.]
When it should be read-
In our annual cycle of Torah readings there is a certain amount of flexibility as to which parsha comes out on which week. This year, for instance, as it was a leap year had no double parshiot in order to accommodate the extra four weeks and we found ourselves reading the middle of Sefer Vayikra before Pesach where in a regular year we would have been at the very beginning and the parshiot of Tazria Metzora would have been combined as those of Achrei Mot Kedoshim. Despite all of this there are certain guidelines that must be kept. One of these rules is that the “tochacha” in Vayikra must be read before Shavuot while the “tochacha” in Devarim must be read before Rosh Hashanah.
The Gemara explains that this is to “finish off the year and its’ curses”, before entering the next year which we would like to be starting with a clean slate. The “year” that starts at Rosh Hashanah is the common new year that we are all familiar with. The “year” that is associated with Shavuot is based on the mishnah in Rosh Hashanah that tells us that on Shavuot we are judged concerning the produce of that year. This timing issue can be understood in two different ways. It would seem that Tosafot understood this as simply trying to avoid mentioning the curses in the new year and therefore making every effort to get this “behind us” prior to the onset of the new year. They note that the common practice is to actually see to it that an additional parsha is inserted before the new year in both cases, is we see this year when we will read Bamidbar as well before Shavuot.
I think that we can suggest another explanation of this idea. Instead of seeing it as a “problem” to be solved and the solution being to read this parsha early, I think it may actually be a very positive force. The reading of the “tochacha” prior to a Day of Judgment should fulfill the same function that we discussed earlier in relation to the Torah reading of the Fast days. As we approach a Yom Din we are to take very seriously one of the underlying principles of the Jewish faith, reward and punishment. If we do not merit a good year we will not have one and there is no time better than now for teshuva.
The Bracha/ Klala Ratio-
As we read the “tochacha” we are struck by the lack of equal time given to the brachot as opposed the klalot. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Reah) is bothered by this and offers three interesting explanations.
R. Shmuel uses a “unique” method of calculation to see the bright side of things. He says, instead of simply counting the pesukim we should look at the beginning and the end in order to understand the scope of the two sections. The brachot begin with the letter aleph “Im Bechukotai…” and end with the letter Tav “Kommemiut”. The implication being that Moshe related the brachot to us “from alpha to omega”. On the other hand the klalot begin with Vav and end with Hey leaving absolutely nothing in between.
R. Shmuel seems to be looking for the silver lining to this very dark and gloomy cloud and I think that we all feel that on a pshat level his “accounting procedures” don’t really deal with the question.
R. Levi sees the abundance of klalot as a means of deterrence. There is so much to be lost by not keeping the Torah that we are convinced to stay in line to avoid all of the horrors described. This explanation should spark lively discussion concerning our keeping of the Torah out of personal interests and the relative value of punishment versus reward in an educational setting.
In the final stage of the midrash it is suggested that the enormous amount of klalot were said as a negotiating tool. God, so to speak, has room to maneuver in the event that Am Yisrael sin, compromise is possible. We are deserving of A,B and C and Hashem in His infinite mercy chooses to implement only part of the punishment.
It seems that the “tochacha” is an integral part of the Brit between Am yisrael and Hakadosh Baruch Hu, both on educational grounds, even if never implemented, and in a real sense as punishment for not following the Torah, an offense that cannot be taken lightly. Let us not forget that in the end of the day it is Hashem Himself that remembers His commitment to us, His pact with the avot, and puts an end to our suffering for His sake.
May we merit all of the Brachot described in the, albeit short, but encompassing first section of this weeks parsha.