Torah Thoughts on Parashat Bechukotai 5782
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Bechukotai, the last section of the Book of Leviticus. It contains a famous and long paragraph, known in Hebrew as the tochecha, literally admonition or reproof. This paragraph highlights the negative consequence of a failure by the people of Israel to follow God’s laws and keep his commandments.
Because of the disturbing nature of the admonitions – terror, disease, warfare, famine, and desolation – this section is traditionally read in a low voice in synagogue readings, but loud enough to be audible to the congregation. For many, the custom is to read it without a break, but with the three verses before the admonitions and the three verses after the admonitions, read in a normal voice and pace. This way, the admonitions are always accompanied by the message that God will remember his covenant with his people.
With the passing of the years, new customs developed regarding the reading of the tochecha. Some went so far as to leave the synagogue during its reading, to avoid hearing the harsh words of admonitions. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, (Russia, Poland, 1838– 1933, known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim, an influential rabbi, Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life) wrote that this custom reminded him of a person who was warned about a particular journey, because it is dangerous, with wild animals or the like. Imagine if this person, when ready to hit that path, would cover his eyes, to avoid seeing the scary dangers of the road. That, of course, would not only remove any possible danger, but, in fact, would increase it!
The same thing happens to those who leave the synagogue during the reading of the Tochecha. Instead of listening to the admonition and meditating on how to avoid its consequences, they “cover their eyes” and thus miss any possibility of change and improvement.
Every so often we find ourselves in similar situations in real life. We are warned (by relatives, friends, or other people) about difficult situations we could end up being in if we don’t change our behavior or approach to something. Sometimes it is so difficult to listen that we prefer not hearing or not seeing. We all know this is a recipe for trouble.
The Torah teaches us that we should be open to criticism and rebuke, although it may be hard to listen to. Avoiding listening or looking the other way will not help us, but only increase our chances of failure. Recognizing our problems is always the first step to improvement.