This portion contains the tochacha, the stern admonitions and treacherous warnings of what will happen to the Jewish people lest they not observe the Torah. Of course, the prescient predictions of misfortune are preceded with a bounty of blessing if we keep the Torah.
Unfortunately, however, the good comes with the bad, and the unfavorable penalties are not omitted. They are hauntingly clear and undiluted. The Torah details calamity with Divine accuracy. It predicts enemies with foreign tongues will come from foreign lands to capture us. The Torah forewarns that these conquerors will not act like most, to leave the subjugated in their own land. They will, says the Torah, disperse the Jews throughout the entire world. Frightfully, the parsha foreshadows the horrors of the inquisition and Holocaust with descriptions of barbarism, Jews betraying Jews, and mass starvation. The predictions are amazing in their accuracy; and more depressing, we were the victims. It’s a very difficult parsha, but the Torah must apprise us about the pain and suffering we will eventually endure.
This essay is in no way attempting to answer why those bad things happened to good people. But two thousand years before the events, the Torah predicts events that are unprecedented in the annals of conquerors and the vanquished. And it happened. Yet the Torah doesn’t end it’s tochacha only with notes of despair. The strong admonitions close with a promise that, though we will be spread throughout the world we will always yearn for our homeland, feel connected to it, and that an enduring spirit and love for Judaism and our Father in Heaven will never cease. Three thousand years and countless massacres, crusades, inquisitions later it still works. Pretty powerful.
That would have been a great way to end off quite a depressing portion. It would have even been a wonderful way to end the Sefer VaYikra. But the Torah ends the portion with quite an anticlimactic group of laws.
Immediately after the tochacha, it discusses the laws of erechin. A person has the right to donate his own value or the value of any of his possessions to the Temple. He can declare his home, his animals, even himself as subject to evaluation. Moreover, the Torah assesses a value to any living soul. And that value, whether 30 silver shekels or 50 shekels, is to be donated to the Temple. What connection is the last part of the parsha to the stern and ominous portion that preceeds it?
After the Nazis invaded the small village of Klausenberg, they began to celebrate in their usual sadistic fashion. They gathered the Jews into a circle in the center of town, and then paraded their Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusial Yehuda Halberstam, into the center. They began taunting and teasing him, pulling his beard and pushing him around. The vile soldiers trained their guns on him as the commander began to speak. “Tell us Rabbi,” sneered the officer, “do you really believe that you are the Chosen People?”
The soldiers guarding the crowd howled in laughter. But the Rebbe did not. In a serene voice, he answered loud and clear, “Most certainly.” The officer became enraged. He lifted his rifle above his head and sent it crashing on the head of the Rebbe. The Rebbe fell to the ground. There was rage in the officer’s voice. “Do you still think you are the Chosen People?” he yelled.
Once again, the Rebbe nodded his head and said, “yes, we are.” The officer became infuriated. He kicked the rebbe in the shin and repeated. “You stupid Jew, you lie here on the ground, beaten and humiliated. What makes you think that you are the Chosen People?”
From the depths of humiliation clouded in dust, the Rebbe replied. “As long as we are not the ones kicking and beating innocent people, we can call ourselves chosen.”
The Kotzker Rebbe explains that the Torah follows the portion of tochacha, the story of Jews kicked and beaten from their homeland, with an even more powerful message. No matter what happens, we have great value as individuals, and as a nation, now and for eternity. Hashem understands that even in the depths of the Diaspora each and every one of us is a great commodity. Lying on the ground, beaten and degraded, a Jewish man, woman, or child can declare his value to the Temple, for no matter how low any nation considers him, G-d values his great worth. And he is considered cherished for eternity. Until the great day when all the nations of the world will also realize the precious value of the tiny nation that dwells amongst them. Good Shabbos
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.