Bechukotai: Blessings and Curses for the Whole World

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 month ago

      This week’s parashah ends the book of Vayikra, and it ends it with voluntary gifts to the Temple; thus, the “bookends” of Vayikra, the very beginning and end, involve one approaching the Temple voluntarily, and this is the ideal. But right before the last section is the far more famous section of “blessings and curses,” depending on whether God’s laws are followed or not. These blessings and curses apply primarily to life in the Land of Israel, some more exclusively than others; however, this week, we want to go through some of the verses, show that they can be observed in today’s West, and try to see if they can tell us about what the Torah is.

      The first blessing is גשמים (generally translated as “rains”) at the right time, Rav S.R. Hirsch translates גשם differently: “[It] is related to גזם, enormous increase. Thus, גשם is that which causes increase.” The earth, says the parashah, will yield its produce; the tree, its fruit. Various abundance is described.

      Reading this, it seems as if there is a supernatural connection—perhaps there is. But watching the Western world develop a system closer to Torah than any non-Jewish system before it, and maintain that system for centuries, we see the great abundance that human freedom creates.

      The following blessing is about peace in the land, nothing disturbing one’s rest, wild beasts disappearing, no sword passing through. Again, we have seen this approximated in the West. Although the most famous times in history are when this was not the case, those highlight precisely where the cracks were in the West’s Torah observance. As a general trend, Western society gradually became the most peaceful and secure in history. Note that the abundance and security that we see is not supernatural, but is demonstrably the direct, simple consequence of organizing a society in this way.

      There is a blessing of pursuing one’s enemies and them falling; and indeed, the tremendous technological achievements of the West made it unparalleled militarily. It was at times when it failed to keep to the Torah that its technology backfired, providing its enemies with advanced weaponry. Five pursuing a hundred, and a hundred pursuing ten thousand, for better or worse, literally came true with the bombs and missiles developed in the West.

      The blessing of eating old produce when new produce is already coming materialized in the form of savings. It is only the blessings of God literally walking with the people for which one can question whether they materialized for Western society.

      Sadly, today, the West is moving away from Torah, which gives us an up close and personal view of some of the curses in this week’s parashah. The first curse is about dismay, eyes pining away and the spirit filling with grief. We believe that this phenomenon in the West is reflected in Émile Durkheim’s concept of anomie.

      This is followed by a curse of sowing one’s seed in vain because the enemy consumes it. We believe that it is no coincidence that as the West moves away from Torah, it becomes less and less advantageous to create value; much of the value one creates gets taxed away, and what is left is requiring more and more security from thieves and looters. We do not believe that it is an accident that California seems to currently be America’s epicenter of this curse.

      Related is the curse of the land no longer yielding produce, and trees no longer yielding fruit. It is natural that in a strong economy, small efforts bring great rewards; as an economy weakens, potential clients become poorer, and the same efforts often no longer yield such dramatic results.

      The curse of unleashing wild beasts who rob us of our children, destroy our cattle, reduce our numbers and leave our highways desolate has been materializing in the West as well. In the summer of 2020, we saw riots destroy wealth that businesses had spent years accumulating and channeling productively; we see “beasts” from the same movement working in public schools, “teaching” children topics targeted at destroying the family. While our highways still have more traffic than we may like, our rising gas prices may bring desolate highways sooner than we would guess.

      As we get farther into the curses, we—thankfully—have to step out of the current West to find them, but at first we do not have to step out far. The curse of ten women baking bread in the same oven was quite true of Soviet communal apartments.

      There are further curses beyond, and this should alarm us. The end, however, is a happy one: God remembers our covenant, and never despises us. We do not believe that this promise extends to other nations.

      So what do we learn from this? For one thing, it should highlight the shallowness of a common (though never explicitly spoken) view of parshiot like this one, and the Torah in general, as if God created random rules and now rewards and punishes us based on how well we obey them. The fact is that both the blessings and the curses are natural consequences, and the Torah is a treasure that warns us of these, and provides instructions for how to make individual and communal life worthwhile. The story of the West is a testament to how well the advice of the Torah serves us, even when applied only partially.

      Tehillim 72, which claims in its last verse to be the last of the Tehillim by King David, ends with the words וברוך שם כבודו לעולם וימלא כבודו את כל הארץ אמן ואמן—“And blessed be His glorious name forever; and let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen.” In the morning, right before we go to Divrei HaYamim and David’s blessing at the time that the Ark came to Jerusalem, we say three verses that start with the word ברוך, the last of which is this one. The Torah is God’s instructions for creating a world filled with His glory, and the West has shown us that with Torah, God’s glory naturally fills the world, creating a different type of life. We have caught but a glimpse of this; when we say that verse, may we dream of achieving it beyond our wildest imagination.

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