After the Curses: Bechukotai 2022
How to read the Torah section of the tochacha, the curses, in the synagogue, has always been a delicate matter. The Torah discusses the consequences of God’s covenant with the Jews twice; there are blessings for fulfilling the covenant, and curses for violating it. The Mishnah rules that the tochacha is meant to be read as a single unit, during one aliyah; why is a matter of debate. Rav Asi’s opinion is that dividing the tochacha would show a lack of respect. He bases his view on the verse in Mishlei, “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son, and do not abhor His rebuke.” The curses offer a rebuke and a lesson of personal change, and we read this section uninterrupted in respect for its important message.
A very different view of the Mishnah’s rule is offered by Resih Lakish. He says we don’t divide the tochachainto two aliyot because it would be inappropriate to make a blessing on the Torah in middle of the curses. He explains “one doesn’t make a blessing on calamities.” We don’t welcome curses and bless their arrival; curses are meant to be avoided like the plagues they enumerate.
This view became particularly influential in the medieval period, and the tochacha aliyah is actually treated as being cursed—so much so, that some communities skipped the Torah reading for this parsha! In most communities, the custom is to read this section quickly, and in a low voice; this is based on a passage in the Talmud that talks about “mumbling” while reading the tochacha.
There are many other customs regarding this aliyah. In some places they called an ignorant, undistinguished person for the curses, because their Torah blessing was less likely to influence the divine realm, while in other places they specifically called the rabbi, who would be unafraid to read this section. But in many locales, this section was avoided by the entire community. Rabbi Moshe Isserles records that the custom of Ashkenazi communities was to call out in synagogue before the tochacha aliyah, “Anyone who wants can read.” This created a problem, because no one wanted to take the aliyah; and in responsa literature, there are reports of communities waiting for hours for someone to approach for the aliyah.
Some enterprising communities dealt with this problem by hiring a poor person to take this aliyah. (The 14th century Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin so disliked this custom, he once remarked angrily to a poor man who took this aliyah, “Why do you need more pain?”) Some individuals became “specialists” who would be paid to take the tochacha aliyah in several synagogues. There is a joke about the time when the man employed to take the tochacha aliyah came exceptionally late. Annoyed with the delay, the head of the synagogue asked him why he didn’t come on time. The man explained he was late because he had taken the tochacha aliya at several other synagogues as well, because “you can’t make a living from just one set of curses.”
For hundreds of years, Jewish communities have embraced Reish Lakish’s view: We do not want to listen to these curses, or be entangled in them. Perhaps the fire and brimstone of the tochacha might motivate people to improve themselves; but even so, we would prefer to accept neither its honey nor its sting, and avoid it entirely.
For hundreds of years, Jewish communities have embraced Reish Lakish’s view: We do not want to listen to these curses, or be entangled in them.
On a Shabbat morning in 1952, one rabbi went a step further, and completely ignored the tochacha. The Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, was a Holocaust survivor, whose wife and 11 children had been murdered by the Nazis. After the war, he had relocated to Brooklyn. On that Shabbat morning, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, then a 12-year-old, had come to visit the Rebbe’s synagogue, and this is how Rabbi Riskin describes that remarkable Torah reading:
“In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the Tochacha in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word ‘hecher’ (louder) came from the direction of the lectern upon which the rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the shul.
The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Bibles in questioning silence. Could they have heard their rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the Tochacha out loud? The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face, and fire blazing in his eyes: ‘I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear. We’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!’”
The Klausenberger Rebbe was a man who had seen all these curses, and worse, up close; and that Shabbat morning he was demanding from God that there be no more curses. In doing so, the Rebbe redefined what these curses mean. But at the same time, he also redefined what blessings are as well. At the end of services the Rebbe rose to speak. Rabbi Riskin writes: “His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love, leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul. ‘My beloved brothers and sisters,’ he said, ‘Pack up your belongings. We must make one more move. God promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come – but not from America. The blessings will only come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.’”
The Rebbe’s words are profoundly inspiring. But they are actually a great deal more than that; they represent a dramatic shift in the Rebbe’s philosophy. Before the war, he was an anti-Zionist. He felt that a Jewish State could only be created by the Messiah, and a state built by secular Zionists would fall very short of the authentic Messianic utopia. But after the war, he became far more pragmatic. He explained his change of heart by referencing a debate between two Hasidic rabbis during the Napoleonic wars, as the invasion of Russia had aroused speculation that the Messiah might be coming. The Klausenberger Rebbe wrote:
“The Rabbi (Menachem Mendel) of Rimanov declared that he would agree to them proceeding from Lviv to Rawa, ankle-deep in Jewish blood, so long as the Messiah would come, while the Rabbi of Ropshitz insisted that ‘we will not hear of a third or a quarter—i.e., if even a third or a quarter of a Jew would be missing, we do not want to hear of redemption.’ When I was a child, I asked my revered father and teacher, may his memory protect us: Was Rabbi Menachem Mendel not correct?”
When the Klausenberger Rebbe got older, he came to the opinion that protecting people from suffering was more important than building a messianic utopia. When you have seen the worst the world has to offer, what matters are small blessings, not grand visions. And the Klausenberger Rebbe saw Israel as a blessing one must grab hold of. After that Shabbat morning, he began building a neighborhood in Netanya, and in December 1959, moved to Israel with 51 of his followers.
The Klausenberger Rebbe consistently searched for a way to improve the lives of his fellow Jews. In response to his own wartime experiences of suffering, he built the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, a rather unusual undertaking for a Hasidic Rebbe. And he appreciated the State of Israel for the safety and protection that it brought to so many Jews. The Klausenberger Rebbe met and maintained a regular correspondence with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, and was vilified by many of his colleagues for doing so. For him, this represented a profound shift, not just away from anti-Zionism. It was a change of perspective, recognizing that even if it isn’t a utopia, the State of Israel was a blessing that made the lives of Jews better.
When they met, Ben Gurion asked the Klausenberger Rebbe for his expectations for a Jewish state. The rabbi answered he has maximum and minimum expectations. “What are they?” “The minimum is that I will be able to go out on a Shabbos morning wearing my shtreimel and bekeshe and no one will bother me,” he said. And the maximum? “You, (Ben Gurion), will wear a shtreimel as well.”
The Rebbe still savored the utopian vision of a State of Torah; but he now embraced the “minimum expectation” as an incredible blessing as well.
I am currently in Israel with nearly 500 Ramaz students and teachers. It is truly inspiring to be a part of this mission, and to tour Israel with the students. Israel is not a utopia; but at a minimum, it is a miracle of which previous generations could only dream. And at a time when too many American Jews mumble their support for Israel, it means a great deal that our school and our community is ready to offer its support for Israel, louder and louder.