IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
There are two places in the Torah where we find a lengthy series of curses directed towards the Jewish people. When the sages arranged the weekly Torah readings, they did so in such a way that one of those readings, this week's portion of Bechukotai, would always come out just before the holiday of Shavuot, and the other reading of curses, found in Parshat Ki Tavo, comes out just before Rosh Hashanah.
There are two places in the Torah where we find a lengthy series of curses directed towards the Jewish people. When the sages arranged the weekly Torah readings, they did so in such a way that one of those readings, this week's portion of Bechukotai, would always come out just before the holiday of Shavuot, and the other reading of curses, found in Parshat Ki Tavo, comes out just before Rosh Hashanah. Granted that these are both important times of the year in the Jewish calendar, but why read the curses just before the holidays?
Let us raise one more question regarding the nature of the curses themselves. Towards the end of this week's Torah portion, as the intensity of the curses builds, Hashem says that the punishment of galut (exile from the land of Israel) will befall the wayward Jewish people. Similarly, in Parshat Ki Tavo, after describing in graphic detail the horrible tragedies that will occur, the concluding line is: "I will bring you back to Egypt. . ." It seems logical that the worst of the curses would be last; if so, how is a return to Egypt the worst? Why is exile deemed more devastating than every other form of sickness and plague imaginable described throughout the portion?
Perhaps the explanation is as follows: Just 49 days after the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people stood at Mt. Sinai. Metaphysically, we can easily understand that it was at that point in history that the people, as one entity, acquired a neshamah (soul). Only later, when they conquered and inherited the land of Israel, did the people acquire a guf (body). The first Temple, our Beit HaMikdash, stood from the time King Solomon built it for 490 years. It was destroyed, our sages tell us, because the Jewish people were guilty during that time of the three cardinal sins: idol worship, sexual misconduct, and murder. The Talmud explains the need for such a harsh punishment by telling us that each of these three sins violates the neshamah - that is, they each have an especially devastating effect on the soul of a person and its connection to Hashem.
We know that in the process of a person being healthy and then, G-d forbid, getting sick, there is also a recovery period. Our literature is filled with comparisons between this physical cycle and a similar spiritual cycle of health, sickness, and recovery. The process of teshuvah (repentance) is often compared to taking the proper medicine for sickness. The virus, so to speak, of spiritual sickness is the act of sin. Just like a physical virus separates us from physical health, so too does sin separate us from spiritual health. This process is the history of the Jewish people. The people were healthy and they built a Temple in Jerusalem. Then they got sick, so to speak, through the three cardinal sins, and the Temple was destroyed. You'll note that after the reconstruction of the Temple, these three sins of the people are never mentioned again; they had disappeared from the writings in the Bible! On a communal level, there was a complete recovery.
In the curse of Parshat Bechukotai, the exile is mentioned at the end of the curse, and is actually part of the curse itself. This is the story of sins affecting the soul. During the time of Solomon's Temple, sending the people into exile was the "cure" for the sins of the people. By exiling the nation from the land, the process of health, sickness, and recovery took place. Hashem Himself provided the cure through the act of exile itself.
The destruction of the second Temple by the Romans and the onset of the lengthy current exile (more than 1900 years) is compared in the writings of the Prophets to death. We should take note that this "death" is the death of the guf, the death of the body. Once again, the only recovery is through the process of teshuvah. However, this time, the people must administer the cure themselves, rather than having it directly administered by Hashem.
Since our current "sickness" is compared to physical death, the cure can only be compared to the resurrection of the dead at the end of days. The Jewish people must be recreated, so to speak, in order to recover from this sickness. We should note that the conclusion of the curses in Parshat Ki Tavo is that the Jewish people will be sent back to Egypt where we were created as a people, and where we will be "recreated" as a people of Israel. Dust to dust. Then, in the final redemption, the people will be resurrected, and that "cure" will last forever.
The period preceding the holiday of Shavuot is the time when we are focused upon the receiving of the Jewish soul at Mt. Sinai. This is the time of year when we are most prone to be thinking about our spiritual sickness, and, with Hashem's help, our subsequent spiritual recovery. Shavuot, when we relive the revelation at Mt. Sinai; and the parallel curse/recovery preceding Rosh Hashanah, when the books of life and death are open before Hashem and our lives hang in the balance, these are the times when we stand before our Creator, begging to be saved from the death of the body, from which the only cure can be a resurrection of the dead.
With this in mind, we approach the curses in Parshat Bechukotai and the holiday of Shavuot that follows, with the V'techezena prayer we say three times a day: "May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion". May Hashem bring us out of this long dark night of exile, bringing us His promised redemption, quickly, and in our days.
Jeff Ram, a former resident of Atlanta, now lives in Jerusalem with his wife Diane. Their children, both graduates of Yeshiva Atlanta, live in Baltimore and Jerusalem. (Ben, with wife Shira and two daughters, Miri and Ariella, and David, who will be graduating from Yeshiva University this summer).
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