Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Punishment: Hidden Treasure?
It seems fair to say that, while at times we may hope to "get away"
with our errors and shortcomings, thereby avoiding the admonition
of the Almighty, the sincere Jew certainly doesn't expect to be
rewarded for sin. Only the most misguided soul could possibly expect
to "do as Zimri did, and expect the reward of Pinchas (see Bamidbar
chapter 25; Sotah 22b)." Indeed, the Talmud in many instances goes
out of its way to ensure that we do not inadvertently cause "the sinner
to profit through his sin."
(Tangentially, as a teacher, it amazes me how poor a job we have
done at instilling in our youth this most basic and elementary
concept. If we fail, through our overindulgence and fear of
overfocusing on achievement, to (gently) educate today's youth that
diligence and excellence will be duly recognised and rewarded, and
that indolence and half-hearted work are unacceptable, how can we
expect to stem the rising tide of ignorance, laziness and am-aratzus
that so plagues our generation?)
In light of this, let us examine a seemingly bizarre comment of Rashi
in this week's parsha that "cries out" for an explanation. We know
that, in the view of Chazal, our Sages, Negaim (the various blemishes
dealt with in this week's Torah reading) are not so much a physical
malady as a spiritual manifestation of one's sin. As the Rambam
(Hilchos Tu'mas Tzaraas 16:10) expresses it, "[Tzaraas] is not a
natural occurrence, but rather a wondrous sign in Israel in order to
alert the Jews to the sin of lashon ha-ra (gossip and slanderous
speech). One who speaks lashon ha-ra - the walls of his home would
become afflicted. If he repented, fine. If he continued to sin, his
clothing would be afflicted... Until the tzaraas would afflict his very
body." Rashi, however, while clearly in agreement with this concept,
mentions that there was a very positive flipside to tzaraas:
The affliction of tzaraas was a good tiding for the Jews.
The Emorites [who had inhabited Canaan before the
Jews] had hidden golden treasures in the walls of their
houses during the forty years that Israel was in the
desert. Through the affliction, one would be forced to
break down one's walls, whereupon he would find the
Of all the ways that the Almighty could have chosen to bring to our
attention to the treasures hidden in our walls, why did He do so
through an affliction which is clearly the result of our sin?
The Radvaz (Rabbi David ben Shlomo ibn Avi Zimra zt"l, 5239-
5333/1479-1573), in his explanation of the two Tochachos
(Admonitions) of the Torah (see parshas Bechukosai and parshas Ki
Savo), notes that two distinct types of punishment emerge. The
Tochacha of Ki Savo continually expresses the punishments and
calamities which will befall the Jews if they fail to heed Hashem's
word as, "Hashem will do this... Hashem will do that..." Clearly, we
are being guided by Hashem, gently or not-so-gently, back to the
path from which we have strayed. Conversely, the overriding theme
of parshas Bechuoksai is one of abandonment, "If you abandon Me,
and treat My Torah casually, I too will treat you casually, and I will
give you over into the hands of your enemies..."
There is, perhaps, only one thing worse for a child than being
punished by a parent; being thrown out of the house. Punishment,
when not abused, actually says: I love you and I care about you, and
it bothers me that you are going in the wrong direction. A child might
not always have the insight to fully understand this, but the message
is there. Sending a child away says: I no longer have any interest in
you; I have ceased to feel for you and no longer want you in my life.
[In desperation, a mother once called her husband up
from the basement to "put those rowdy kids to sleep."
After warning them what would befall the next child to
leave his bed, all was quiet. Soon after, he heard: "Taaa...
" "What?" "I'm thirsty. Can you bring me a drink of water?"
"No, you had your chance. Lights out." Five minutes later:
"Taaaaa... " "WHAT?" "I'm THIRSTY. Can I have a drink of
water?!" "I told you NO! If you ask again, I'll have to potch
(hit) you!" Five minutes later: "Taaaaaaa... " "WHAT??!!"
"When you come in to potch me, can you bring me a
drink of water?"]
This, explains the Radvaz, is why the Tochacha of Bechukosai
concludes with words of consolation ("I will remember the covenant
I made with Yaakov..." [Vayikra 26:42]), while Ki Savo does not. The
Tochacha of Ki Savo requires no consolation. It is the greatest act of
love and kindness that Hashem promises He will not let us stray too
far from Him; that if need be, He will be there to remind us of our
commitments and point out our shortcomings. The abandonment of
Bechukosai, on the other hand, is so devastating and overwhelming,
that it had to conclude with words of consolation.
This, says the Sha'arei Orah (volume 2, parshas Metzora), gives us
a whole new perspective on punishment, and our reaction to it. G-d
does not punish us as an act of revenge and anger; to the contrary,
out of His great love for us, He punishes us to bring to our attention
our erroneous ways, thereby steering us gently back to the path of
the righteous. Perhaps the expression "punishment" is not even the
right term, it's more like a gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) tap on
the shoulder, reminding us where we are, and where we should be.
If we have the insight and prudence to treat it as such, and, instead
of responding with indignation as one punished is prone to do, we
react by considering what indeed Hashem is saying, and what we can
do to change, then we have not really been punished at all! We
rejoice at having been aroused to teshuva (repentance), and are
thankful for the opportunity for another chance.
If this is indeed how we react, then it is completely appropriate to
reward us for having done so. "There is no man," says the Navi
(Koheles/Ecclesiastes 7:20), "who is so righteous as to only do good
and never sin." We all, at times, need a gentle potch on the hand. If
we take that potch, and use it to awaken ourselves to teshuva and
self-scrutiny, Hashem rewards us.
This is why, he explains, it is only at the first stage of tzaraas that we
find the affliction leading to a reward. If one pays attention to the
Heavenly tap, and reacts accordingly, then he deserves to be duly
rewarded. If, however, he continues to sin, then he obviously has
failed to heed Hashem's message. The next stages of punishment,
therefore, bring with them no reward; Hashem is forcing the sinner
back, against his will.
Perhaps, then, the material treasures of gold found in the walls are
symbolic of the hidden spiritual treasures that await those who have
the insight and consideration to listen to the hidden messages of life;
constant guidance and closeness to Hashem.
Have a good Shabbos.