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Of Love and Pain

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

Parshat Bechukotai contains a series of blessings and curses. Surprisingly, only 11 verses are dedicated to blessings (Leviticus 26:3-13), while a full 36 verses are dedicated to curses (Leviticus 26:14-46). The contrast is striking. Why are there so many more curses than blessings? It almost seems as though someone is out to get us!

Furthermore, King David writes in Psalms, "Your staff and Your rod have comforted me" (Psalms 23:4). It seems strange that he would use this imagery to depict comfort, since staffs and rods are instruments of pain. If King David wanted to use soothing symbolism, why didn't he write something like, "Pillows and cushions have comforted me"?

The Chafetz Chaim cites the Talmud (Brachot 5a), in which Rava explains that God smites His desired ones with pains and difficulties, as the verse says, "The one whom God desires is smitten with illness" (Isaiah 53:10). We also find a support to this idea in the verses, "God chastises the one He loves, like a parent who desires the child" (Proverbs 3:12) and "Fortunate is the one whom God afflicts with pains and suffering" (Psalms 94:10).

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Based on these verses, we can understand why King David used staffs and rods as examples of comfort. Staffs and rods are instruments of pain - and this is precisely the idea that King David found so comforting! The pain itself is a sign that God loves us. But how? Let us explore this idea with a concrete example.

Imagine you're walking down the street, and a few yards ahead of you, a group of children is playing ball. At a certain point, the ball is kicked into the gutter, and a 5-year-old boy runs out to retrieve it. He is so focused on the ball that he doesn't look for oncoming traffic, and he dashes into the street directly in front of a car. The driver notices the boy at the last second, slams on the brakes, and the car comes to a screeching halt - missing the boy by an inch.

Your reaction to this scene, as a pedestrian, would most likely be to hold your breath in horror, and then, when you see that the boy is unharmed, to continue on your way, perhaps shaking your head about the impulsiveness of children.

If the boy's mother were witnessing the scene, on the other hand, she would react differently. Initially, she will also hold her breath in horror - but when she sees that her son is unharmed, she will run over to him, drag him off the street, and spank him soundly, all the while yelling that he should never, ever do that again!

What's the difference between you and the boy's mother? You don't care about the boy as much as his mother does. She loves him so much that she will temporarily inflict pain on him in order to teach him a lesson.

Let us quickly explore five additional points that support the idea that pain indicates God's love for us:

  1. The Ramchal (Mesillat Yesharim 1) states that challenges and difficulties remind us of the transience of this world. When, due to our pain, we realize that life is really about the next world, we can realign our values and live in accordance with what is lasting and true.

  2. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that pain strengthens our moral fiber and molds us. Going through difficult experiences helps us to be sensitive to others' pain and helps us to appreciate good in our lives. Pain is therefore a gift from the One who loves us ("no pain, no gain"), and crises and problems can be seen as opportunities for growth.

  3. Our pain can cause us to cry out to God, thus affording us the opportunity to develop a relationship with our Creator. This is not the same as prayer by rote; this is a much deeper level. Calling out from the depths of our heart and initiating a conversation with God in our own language is a powerful way to build a relationship with Him.

  4. Maimonides (Hilchot Ta'aniyot 1:3) teaches that tragedies strike in order for us to repent and return to God.

  5. Pain cleanses us from any mistakes we may have made in the past.

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Of course, despite all the benefits of pain, we must never ask for challenges in this area. But when troubles come on their own, ironically, our very suffering should bring us happiness and joy. The tractate of the Talmud devoted to the laws of mourning is called "Tractate of Happiness" (found at the end of Tractate Avodah Zara). On a simple level, we can understand this as meaning that a mourner is not permitted to attend festivities and celebrations. On a deeper level, however, the title indicates that mourning is actually a happy occasion.

This explains why Parshat Bechukotai contains more curses than blessings. The curses themselves are a sign that God loves us and wants us to receive all the benefits that come from the difficulties. As the Midrash (Devarim Raba 1:4) points out, Bilam ultimately blesses the Jewish people, while Moses ultimately curses the nation. Why would our arch-enemy give us a blessing and our devoted leader give us a curse?

Bilam doesn't want us to benefit from all the positive opportunities that come with pain. He simply wants to compliment us, to reassure us that everything is okay, so that we will not have the chance to grow beyond our current level. Moses, on the other hand, who loves us and really cares, doesn't let us off the hook. He chastises us harshly in order to make sure we become the best that we can be.

God loves us even more than Moses. Because of this, the curses in Parshat Bechukotai are even harsher than the curses that Moses gives in the Book of Deuteronomy (see Rashi on Leviticus 26:19 in contrast to Deut. 28:23). We see this in the most tragic month on the Jewish calendar, as well, the month in which both Temples were destroyed and numerous other national tragedies occurred. This month is called "Av," which is the Hebrew word for "father." The calamities of Av teach us that our Creator loves us deeply. If God didn't care about us, He wouldn't bother to send us the opportunities of pain.

We can each choose whether or not to implement these ideas in our own lives in order to help us cope, change our attitudes, and better manage our own challenges. We must remember, however, never to lecture other people when they are going through a period of suffering. When others are in pain, our job is simply to be there for them, cry with them, feel their pain, and do whatever we can to provide comfort.

May we all be blessed with the strength to face challenges and difficulties with a healthy frame of mind, so that we clarify the purpose of life, stretch ourselves to the maximum, and become as close as possible to God, Who is loving us every moment.

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