Parshiyot Behar-Bechukotai 5781: Oppression and the “Tochocha” — The Admonition

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshiyot HaShevua for Behar/Bechukotai is being sponsored by Ron and Rena Rosenberg of Ramat Beit Shemesh and dedicated Lilui Nishmas for the Yahrtzeit of Rena’s Father, Baruch Yecheskal ben Yaakov HaLevi. To the Rosenberg family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.

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Moshe Burt
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Parshiyot Behar-Bechukotai 5781: Oppression and the “Tochocha” — The Admonition

by Moshe Burt

Our Parshat HaShavua opens with an excerpt from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Parshat Summary of our Parshiyot Behar – Bechukotai in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Vayikra (page 221):

Interspersed among the laws of Sh’mitah and Yovel, a series of other edicts are recorded in Parshat Behar, including:

1/ The prohibitions of financial and verbal oppression.
2/ The regulations concerning the redemption of the land before Yovel by the original owner or a close family member.
3/ The prohibition of usury.
4/ The laws of eved Ivri (a Hebrew indentured servant) and eved Cana’ani (a Canaanite slave).

For purposes of this Parshat HaShavua, we will deal with number one: financial and verbal oppression.

Torah states:

“When you make a sale to your fellow, or when you buy from the hand of your fellow, do not victimize one another.” (As rendered to English in “The Sapirstein Edition – The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary”, Sefer Vayikra, Perek 25, posuk 14)

The Sefer “Torat Kohanim” states on the Rashi on this posuk:

Our verse could… have made the point by saying; “When you make a sale or buy, one man should not victimize his brother.” It would have been clear… that the verse refers to transactions between Jews. [It]… teach[es] us that we should sell to fellow Jews… [and] we should buy from fellow Jews. (Torat Kohanim, Parsha 3:1, Mishmeret HaKodesh as cited in “The Sapirstein Edition – The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary”, Sefer Vayikra, page 325)

Rashi renders “do not victimize” as: “townu” (Hebrew letter Tuf with a dot inside) – victimization in financial matters. (As rendered to English in “The Sapirstein Edition – The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary”, Sefer Vayikra, page 326)

Torah then states, three posukim later:

“Do not harass one another…” (As rendered to English in “The Sapirstein Edition – The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary”, Sefer Vayikra, Perek 25, posuk 17)

The Sefer “Torat Kohanim” now states on Rashi’s characterization of the Hebrew word “townu” =”victimize” :

…The same word [Hebrew letter Tuf without the dot – pronounced by Ashkenazim as “sownu”] is used for verbal harassment. (Torat Kohanim, Perek 3:4; Bava Metzia 58b, as cited in “The Sapirstein Edition – The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary”, Sefer Vayikra, page 326)

Rabbi Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Vayikra, (pages 228-231) uses the word “ona’at” which is the root word for “townu,” gives the four “ona’at” prohibitions and discusses them:

…The [four “ona’at” prohibitions are “ona’at mamon,” “ona’at devarim,” “ona’at hager,” and “ona’at eved.”

A review of the four areas of law within the term “ona’a” appears to reveal one salient uniting feature: in each case the perpetrator exploits his superior position by attacking his victim’s preexisting areas of weakness.

The most obvious application of the principle of “ona’a” is found in the arena of “ona’at hager.” The Rabbis understand this prohibition to include any verbal or material advantage taken of someone who occupies a vulnerable position within the society of the Jews, specifically a ger tzedek, a righteous convert.

…Torah Law thus protects those who are most “at risk.” Individuals guilty of oppressing the convert transgress two sets of laws: the general laws prohibiting oppression of all others and the specific proscriptions of the “ona’at hager,” designed to protect the stranger. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mechira 14:15)

An additional, supplementary prohibition forbidding oppression of a slave (“eved”) is found in Sefer Devarim: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. With you shall he dwell in your midst in whatever place he will choose in one of your gates, which is beneficial to him, you shall not oppress him.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Devarim, Perek 23, posuk 16-17)

Many authorities view this… edict as expanding the prohibition of “ona’at hager” to include the oppression of the ger toshav, resident aliens (non-Jews living within our borders who have accepted upon themselves basic moral laws), as well as full converts. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sifrei on Sefer Devarim, Perek 23, posuk 16)

As understood by the Rabbis, the biblical prohibition of “ona’at mamon” fundamentally forbids deceptive pricing.

The Torah’s concern over oppression… extends to any unfair advantage taken of another individual during the course of many interpersonal dealings that mark life’s daily routine. Behavior which causes needless mental anguish by highlighting any individual’s weak point falls into the prohibited category of “ona’at devarim,” verbal oppression.

Oppression. The very term conjures up dramatic images of slaves and taskmasters, tyrants and victims…. The strength of Torah law lies in its ability to demystify seemingly esoteric (adjective: understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge or interest) concepts, to bring them down to earth and make them concretely relevant to our lives,

Oppression can be evidenced not only in extraordinary settings but even in our everyday, ordinary lives.

As with all interpersonal sins, the cost of such behavior is ultimately measured not only in the anguish… cause[d] to others, but in the ultimate price that [ones’ self pays]. Any temporary pleasure or gain that… may accrue through the performance of such acts ultimately pales in comparison with the irretrievable harm done to [one’s] own sacred soul.

Having provided discussion of oppression in our Parshat Behar, our Parshat Bechukotai, the last parsha in Sefer Vayikra, appropriately deals with the Hashem’s enunciation of the blessings and curses of the Tochochah: Hashem’s Admonition of B’nei Yisrael. defines “admonition” thus:

1. an act of admonishing.
2. counsel, advice, or caution.
3. a gentle reproof.
4. a warning or reproof given by an ecclesiastical authority.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin writes context regarding our Parshat Bechukotai in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Vayikra (page 241):

As Parshat Bechukotai and sefer Vayikra draw to a close, Hashem delivers a stinging rebuke and warning to Am Yisrael. Known as the Tochocha Haketana, the small rebuke (in contrast to a second, larger rebuke found in Sefer Devarim), this section contains a series of frightening prophetic descriptions of the tragedies that will befall the nation should they fail to follow in Hashem’s ways.

At the core of this tochocha, a word is found that, in this conjugation, appears nowhere else in the Torah text. Here, however, this term, keri, is repeated no less than seven times within the span of twenty sentences [within Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26]. According to most authorities, tis term apparently connotes “casualness” or “happenstance” and is derived from the root kara, to happen.

Rabbi Goldin provides interpretations of various commentators: (ibid, pages 242-243):

Both Rashi and his grandson, the Rashbam… introduce a basic translation upon which most commentaries build. These scholars translate keri to mean “casual” or “inconsistent” as stated above from the root kara, to happen. If the nation sins by worshiping Hashem in an erratic, inconsistent manner, Rashi and the Rashbam explain, Hashem will respond in kind and will relate to the nation haphazardly and unpredictably as well. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rashi on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posuk 21)

Rabbi Goldin continues (ibid, pages 243-244):

Other commentaries, including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ohr Hachaim, choose a related but different path. The term, keri, … describes a flawed world outlook that can lead to immeasurable sin. [Such] an individual… perceives no pattern to the events unfolding around him. In place of Divine Providence, this individual observes only random coincidence; and in place of punishment for sin, accidental misfortune. For such an individual, teshuvah becomes increasingly unattainable. In a haphazard world governed by arbitrary forces, after all, there exists little incentive for change. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ohr Hachaim on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posuk 21) [random, haphazard world governed by arbitrary forces = climate change and twelve years to the end of the world unless green reform?? Or, playing a misplaced blame-game regarding the origin of the current coronavirus pandemic — This author quiping facetiously!]

…The Ohr Hachaim perceives in Hashem’s reaction — “And I [Hashem], too, will walk with you with keri; casualness… (Rabbi Goldin citing the Ohr Hachaim on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posuk 24) — a carefully calibrated “measure for measure” for the nation’s failing If the people refuse to see a Divinely pattern in the world around them, Hashem will withdraw making it even more difficult for them to perceive His presence. The punishments to follow will seem even more random, bearing no obvious connection to the nation’s sins. The peoples’ failure to recognize Hashem’s imminence will thus prove frighteningly prophetic, for Hashem will respond with “distance.” (Rabbi Goldin citing the Ohr Hachaim on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posuk 24)

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch interprets the sin associated with the word keri as indifference to Hashem’s Will. Those [so] guilty… find considerations other than Hashem’s will central to their lives and their sporadic obedience to Torah law is thus purely coincidental. Hashem responds to this sin in kind… by removing His Divine protection from the nation and allowing the natural course of world history to determine their fate. The welfare of the Jews will be advanced only, coincidentally, when that welfare happens to correspond to the interests and needs of the powerful nations around them. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posukim 21, 23- 24)

Finally, a group of other scholars, including Onkelos, …explain the term keri to mean “stubbornness” or “harshness.” If the nation stubbornly refuses to obey based on Hashem’s law, Hashem’s response will be harsh and unforgiving. (Rabbi Goldin citing Targum Onkelos on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posukim 21, 23)

Near the conclusion of the Tochochah, Torah states the following (Artscroll Stone Chumash, Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posukim 40-41, 44-45) :

“They will confess their sin and the sin of their forefathers, for the treachery with which they betrayed Me, and also for having behaved toward Me with casualness. I, too, will behave toward them with casualness and I will bring them into the land of their enemies — perhaps then their unfeeling heart will be humbled and then they will gain appeasement for their sin. …While they are in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul my covenant with them — for I am Hashem, their God. I will remember for them the covenant of the ancients, those whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be God unto them — I am Hashem.”

This conclusion of the Tochochah, as enunciated in Torah, seems stated in another way in Tehillim Psalm 81 which has been cited here in previous Parshat HaShevua over recent years:

“I am Hashem, your G’d, who elevated you from the land of Egypt, open wide your mouth and I will fill it. But My people did not heed My voice and Israel did not desire me. So I let them follow their heart’s fantasies, they follow their own counsels. If only My people would heed Me, if Israel would walk in My ways. In an instant I would subdue their foes, and against their tormentors turn My hand. Those who hate Hashem lie to Him — so their destiny is eternal. But, He would feed him with the cream of the wheat, and with honey from a rock sate you.”

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 244):

Our associations with each other… can endure many blows and setbacks. One wound, however, invariably proves fatal: total loss of trust. When mutual trust is gone and cannot be regained…; when each… no longer believes that the other has his partner’s best interests at heart, the relationship is doomed.

Hashem thus turns to the B’nei Yisrael and proclaims: “And if you will walk with me with keri…” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posukim 21, 23-24, 27-28, 40)

If I find that you are deliberately inconsistent in your commitment to Me; if I find that you are only at My door when you choose to be; if I find that I cannot trust you to seek My presence and relate to Me continuously; the I will respond in kind…

“And then I [Hashem], too, will walk with you with keri” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posuk 41)

Hashem will forgive many failings and sins, but when we lose His trust, the punishments of the Tochochah are the result.

Citing Torah text, a commentary in Sefer L’lmode Ul’lamed (page 126) on the Tochochah, the admonishment, the reproof, is explicit as to the punishments that will befall B’nai Yisrael if they violate Hashem’s Torah:

“I (Hashem), will set my face against you and you will be smitten before your enemies. They that hate you will rule over you.” (Parshat Bechukotai, Sefer Vayikra, Perek 26, posuk 17)

The commentary is as follows;

The text implies that included among the enemies will be those from Yisrael, enemies from within. These enemies, say our Rabbanim, are the most vicious of adversaries. Jews who do not accept their Judaism, and who seek to destroy their fellow Jews, are the most dangerous of all. They are traitors against their own kind who know where their fellow men are most vulnerable. (Sefer L’lmode Ul’lamed, Parshat Bechukotai, page 126)

There are Jews who seem to deny their roots and do not accept their Judaism. They put their “emunah” in mortals — in the prowess of man, in themselves and their self-interests and self-enrichment, in the super-power of the time while seeking to destroy their fellow Jews, Jewish roots, laws, history and heritage.

It is tragic that often the worst enemy of the Jewish people, and those most dangerous to the Jews, are the Jews themselves.

R’ Zelig Pliskin, in “Growth Through Torah” (page 303) entitles his thoughts on these posukim as “Don’t just confess your sins, actually improve.” With those words, R’ Pliskin seems to encapsulate true Jewish teshuvah as contrasted with the mere periodic cyclical confession (“forgive me father, for I have sinned…”) of another ‘faith”, followed by repetition of the very sin just confessed to.

R’ Pliskin cites the Chofetz Chayim from his sefer “Chofetz Chayim al HaTorah” (“Growth Through Torah”, page 303):

…The Torah teaches us that just confessing one’s wrongdoings without sincerely regretting the wrong one has done and without accepting on oneself to improve in the future is not worth anything. The most important aspect of repentance is to improve oneself from now on. Only positive changes in one’s actual behavior is true repentance.

In reflecting on the cited posukim above and the words of the Chofetz Chayim, as cited by R’ Pliskin, they seem to relate just as much on a communal/national level in rectifying national sins as they do to rectification of an individual’s sins.

Indeed, divisiveness, fractionalization, coercion and polarization have set in among the sectors of Am Yisrael. And the enemy among us, within; the weak-willed, egotistical, self-centered, self-affectionated, pseudo-right wing leaders who compromise either their ideological and spiritual principles who have put the populous through four indecisive elections in two years — working on a fifth election, or the liberal intelligencia, the leftist, socialist, self-hating, self-deprecating, self-proclaimed intellectuals — they’re hot to seize on this divisiveness and polarization amongst the various sectors of Am Yisrael as the means to their sinful ends — divide and conquer. But let’s hope, in the midst, of, or, B’Ezrat Hashem soon the aftermath, of the current coronavirus pandemic, that Am Yisrael finds her way back to a new normal of Torah-true National unity, of V’ahavtah L’rei’echa Kamocha among all Jews rather than the previous “norm” of divisiveness, discrimination and hate-filled polarization on both societal and political levels.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he and his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha are finally home in Eretz Yisrael. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five and a half years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.