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In this week’s double-parsha, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, we learn about the Tochacha, the chilling series of Rebukes God informs the Jewish people of should they not follow His statutes and walk in His ways, as it says, “If you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments; if you will consider My decrees loathsome, and if your being rejects My ordinances, so as not to perform all My commandments, so that you annul My covenant, then I will do the same to you; I will assign upon you panic, swelling lesions, and burning fever, which cause the eyes to long and souls to suffer…I will turn My attention against you, you will be struck down before your enemies; those who hate you will subjugate you, you will flee with no one pursuing you” (Vayikra 26:14-17). Due to the severe and frightening nature of the Tochacha, each one more intense and terrible than the last, many congregations have developed different minhagim, (customs), concerning the way in which the Tochacha is read in public. According to the Chafetz Chaim, “There are people who are so afraid of the Tochacha that they physically leave the synagogue when it is being read. Other congregations have the custom for the Torah reader to ‘swallow’ his words, and chant them in a very soft tone, so that the majority of the congregants will not actually hear the reading” (Chafetz Chaim Al HaTorah, Bechukotai 181). The Chafetz Chaim, however, does not agree with these customs. Rather, he explains, “It is similar to a person who is warned by another not to go down a certain path because of thorns, scrambling, sprawling shrubs, and wild animals which wait in ambush. If the person being warned chooses not to listen to the warning, the danger becomes even greater for him!” In other words, when someone is warning us of a dangerous path to avoid, what benefit is there to us in choosing not to listen? If we do not listen, if instead, we close our ears and our eyes, thinking, “If we can’t see the danger, it must not be there. Or, if we can’t hear the danger coming, what harm can it do?” will the thorns not prick us? Will the shrubs not cut us? Will the wild animals not attack? By not heeding direct warnings of impending danger, by deluding ourselves into thinking that we can avoid hazard by willfully choosing not to see or hear it, we place ourselves in harm’s way even more.
The Tochacha is meant to serve as a stark warning to the Jewish people: “If we go down a path of rebelliousness, if we follow the whims of our hearts instead of the Will of God, there will be earthly and spiritual consequences, and to willfully avoid even hearing about the perils we could face by closing our ears and our eyes to them, pretending they do not exist, only increases the danger.” Thus, the Chafetz Chaim writes, “King Shlomo gave advice to his son (Rechavam) ‘Do not avoid the upbraiding of God, and do not dismiss His rebuke.’” King Shlomo said this to his son because he knew that in the future, his son would not listen to his advisors who were telling him to heed the words of the people who would not be happy under his rule and who would threaten rebellion. Instead of lightening their burden, as the people requested and as his advisors recommended, he increased it, thinking only of himself, his pride and prestige, and as a result, he lost the kingdom his father and grandfather worked so hard to establish.
We cannot go through life willfully avoiding the harsh things we need to hear in order to help improve and strengthen ourselves, as Jews and as human beings. We cannot go through life thinking that if we can’t hear or see something, it doesn’t exist. On the contrary, the point of the Tochacha is not to scare us. It is to help us make good, informed decisions about which path in life we will choose to take. While the severe nature of the Tochacha may make us uncomfortable, it is a discomfort we should embrace, for only through hearing and feeling its message in its fullness can we truly feel motivated to make right and good decisions in life.
This Shabbat, let us not grow faint upon hearing the chilling words of the Tochacha. Let us not avoid them. Rather, let us take the advice of the Chafetz Chaim, and use the words of the Tochacha as an opportunity to listen, really listen, to the advice God is giving us. Just as we heed the words of doctors, lawyers, educators and experts in all types of fields who have recommendations to help us live good, full, healthy and happy lives, we should feel the same way about the words of God, spoken as the Expert, proposing a prescription for our souls. Friends, this Shabbat, let us open our hearts, our eyes and our ears to the recommendations of God. Let us embrace and take to heart those difficult words, so that we, our community, and the Jewish people, can go down the path of righteousness, avoiding the pitfalls of self-deception, and moving ever forward in our quest for peace, wholeness and prosperity.