Bechukotai: Living Together

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The Jewish people have never been a large nation. Our strength lies in quality, not quantity. Nonetheless, precisely because we are so few in number, every Jew counts. Our vulnerability makes it incumbent upon us to work together as we strive to meet our mandate of being a holy nation that is a light unto the rest of the world. 

Sina'at chinam, indifference towards others, is something that is much more deadly to us than most. Other nations can fight with each other, even to the extent of civil wars, survive more or less intact and move on. For the Jewish people, such actions are catastrophic. In fact, we have yet to recover from the last civil war we fought—over the issue of how to deal with the Roman conquest of Israel. The fighting that ensued, pitting those who wanted accommodation with the Romans versus those willing to fight to the bitter end, led to the destruction of the Jewish state and the beginning of a long period of Jewish suffering. 

While communal discord leads to exile, the opposite is also true. Exile leads to further discord, condemning us to a vicious cycle of fighting and suffering. The Torah in this week's parsha lists a series of misfortunes that will befall us for neglect of Torah—the longer we are obstinate in our refusal to follow G-d's word, the greater the punishment. Towards the end of these dire curses the Torah warns us, "And they stumble, one against the other, as if chased by a sword, even when there is no one pursuing. And there will no means of standing up before your enemies" (Vayikra 26:37). This verse follows on the heels of the Torah foretelling our exile from the land (apparently due to ignoring the laws of the shmitta, the sabbatical year). 

When people are uprooted from their natural surroundings, their natural instinct is to become closer to one another; just think of your reaction to seeing a stranger wearing a kippa on a foreign airplane. Somehow, two Jews travelling will gravitate towards each other, something they might not do if they are sitting at opposite ends of shul. Our joint needs propel us together. 

Yet the Netziv, who witnessed 19th century state anti-Semitism firsthand, points out that against the natural instinct to join together in times of travail, the Jewish people have often intensified their bickering. As terrible as the consequences of sina’at chinam are when we dwell in our own land, it has even more severe consequences when we are concentrated outside the land of Israel. While dwelling in our own country serves to unite us—no matter how bitter our disputes may be—as a people scattered to foreign lands, it is only our unified front that can ensure our survival. Too much fighting amongst ourselves will allow for our defeat, even "when there is no one pursuing". 

This infighting, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out, is the unfortunate natural consequence of galut, exile. Living in fear of attack by the enemy, we tend to think of ourselves and ourselves only. The solidarity necessary for us to confront our adversaries is forgotten as the need to preserve ourselves becomes dominant. This has been the fate of the vast majority of Jews throughout history. The small remnant that survives today—some 12 million of us, astonishingly little after 4,000 years of history—are the exceptional ones. We survivors have managed to rise above thinking only of ourselves, fulfilling the Talmudic maxim that the Jewish people are merciful, modest and dispensers of loving kindness. 

Yet while the unbelievably warm Jewish heart has allowed us to survive in the coldest of climates, we have not managed to fully eradicate sina’at chinam from our midst. Our peaceful return to the land is predicated on replacing this cancer with ahavat chinam. Only when we "will confess the sins and the sins of the fathers" (26:40) will G-d "remember the covenant with Jacob and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham and the land I will remember" (26:42). 

The Talmud instructs us to read parshat Bechukotai, containing these words of reproof (tochecha), just before the holiday of Shavuot. On Shavuot, we stood at Sinai "with one heart, as one person". We must strive to recreate the atmosphere of Sinai, allowing the curses of the tochecha to be relegated to past history.