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Proud To Be a Jew

Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

This week we conclude the book of Leviticus with Parshas Bechukosai, which is commonly referred to as the parsha of "tochacha" - rebuke. It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah's laws. Each curse seems worse than the one before it, and indeed, throughout the generations it has always been a challenge to find someone willing to be called to the Torah for the Aliyah in which these verses are read.

However, it is curious to note that after concluding this terrifying and frightening section of rebuke, chapter 27 abruptly switches to a section dealing with the laws of "Arachin" - the dedication of the value of oneself or another person to the Temple. This section seems completely misplaced. What is the relevance of these laws to the rebuke which dominates the rest of the parsha?

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky recounts an inspiring story which will shed some light on this question. During the Holocaust, when many of the horrifying curses of this week's parsha were manifested before our very eyes, the Germans took a particularly sadistic pleasure in torturing and tormenting the great rabbis who served as teachers and inspiration for the Jewish people. The suffering endured by these righteous leaders is unfathomable.

In one particularly gruesome incident, a number of merciless Nazi officers beat the Klausenberger Rebbe to the brink of death. After enduring seemingly endless blows, the officers asked the bleeding and only semi-conscious Rebbe if after all of this suffering he still believed that the Jews are God's chosen people. He responded unequivocally in the affirmative.

Amazed at the Rebbe's seemingly naive and misplaced faith, they pressed him for an explanation. He replied, "As long as I am not the cruel oppressor of innocent victims, and as long as I am the one down here on the ground maintaining my unwavering faith in my principles and traditions, I am still able to raise my head proudly and know that God chose our people."

Applying the lesson of this story to our original question, the Kotzker Rebbe explains that after reading the terrifying curses contained earlier in the parsha and seeing how they have tragically been fulfilled throughout history, Jews may begin to lose belief in their value and self-worth. As a nation, we have been persecuted more than any other people throughout the ages. Such intense national suffering could easily cause a person to give up hope.

In order to counter this mistaken conclusion, the section outlining the painful times which will befall the Jewish people is immediately followed by the section dealing with the laws of Arachin. This section details how much a person is required to donate if he chooses to dedicate the "value" of himself or another Jew to the Temple. This juxtaposition comes to remind us that even in the darkest times, after enduring the most inhumane suffering fathomable, although we may not be accorded respect by our oppressors, our intrinsic worth in God's eyes is eternal and unchanging.

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There is a Talmudic maxim (Kiddushin 39b) that "s'char mitzvah b'hai alma licha"- God doesn't give a person reward in this world for the mitzvot that he does. How can our parsha begin by stating that if the Jews study Torah and perform the mitzvot properly, God will bless them in this world?

Maimonides (Teshuvah 9:1) explains that although somebody who properly performs the mitzvot will receive the blessings which are promised by the Torah, these are not considered his full and primary reward, which he will only receive in the World to Come. However, when God sees that a person is utilizing all of his energy and talents to study Torah and do mitzvot, He removes from that person all of the obstacles to serving God, such as sickness, war, and hunger, and He bestows upon him the blessings, such as wealth, peace, and health, which will enable him to spend all of his time performing mitzvot.

In other words, God promises good fortune not as the reward for a person's mitzvot, but as a means to free the righteous from mundane distractions and obligations so that they can continue to do even more mitzvot.

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The Torah makes clear (Leviticus 26:21) that many of the horrifying punishments enumerated in Parshas Bechukosai are punishments for- "behaving casually with God." Which sin is explicitly described as an example of acting casually toward God?

The Shulchan Aruch rules that it is forbidden to engage in work while one is reciting Birkas HaMazon (Grace After Meals). The Mishnah Berurah (191:5) writes that this prohibition includes not only a job which requires one's attention and mental energy, but even a trivial task or looking into a book of Torah. He adds that this prohibition is not limited to the recitation of Grace After Meals, and it applies to any blessing or prayer that a person is saying.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that somebody who engages in other activities while he is blessing God is embodying the concept of "behaving casually with God," as he is demonstrating a casualness and lack of respect toward mitzvot, for which the consequence is quite severe.

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Rabbi Shlomo Aharonson was once collecting charity for a needy individual and received a substantial donation from a wealthy man in his town, for which he thanked him profusely. The man was a bit taken aback when the rabbi returned a mere three days later to ask him to contribute once again.

Rabbi Aharonson explained that when separating the tithe of one's animals, the Torah (Leviticus 27:32) mandates a procedure which appears to be needlessly time-consuming and complicated. Rashi explains that the farmer is required to place all of the newborn animals in his flock into a pen and allow them to walk single-file through a narrow opening. As he counts them off one-by-one, he is required to touch each tenth animal with a staff dipped in paint to mark it as his tithe.

If he has a large flock which grows by a substantial amount each year, this process can be quite time-consuming. Wouldn't it be much easier to simply count the number of new animals, divide it by 10, and separate that number of animals to bring as sacrifices in the Temple, similar to the procedure used when tithing one's produce?

Rabbi Aharonson answered that were the farmer to do so, he could easily focus on the enormous number of animals that he is now being required to give away all at one time. However, when he watches the animals pass him one-by-one, he first counts off nine animals which will be his to keep and only then separates the tenth one for God. This procedure is much more palatable since it allows him to focus on how many animals remain for him.

Similarly, Rabbi Aharonson advised the wealthy man to step back for a moment and reflect on how much new wealth he had accumulated in the three days since the rabbi's previous visit. This perspective would much more easily allow him to magnanimously share a bit of his profits with the less fortunate - which he was quite happy to do.

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