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Parshas Bechukosai - Vol. 11, Issue 34
Compiled by Oizer Alport
Although Parshas Bechukosai is commonly referred to as the parsha of tochacha - rebuke - it actually begins with 11 verses which contain a number of blessings promised to those who exert themselves in Torah study and observe the mitzvos properly. The Rokeach points out that these verses of blessing contain every letter in the Hebrew alphabet except for samech.
Rav Yisroel Reisman adds that this anomaly is also found in the story of Creation in Parshas Bereishis, which curiously omits the letter samech. He also notes that out of the 5888 verses in the Torah, astonishingly only two of them begin with the letter samech. One of them is Shemos 32:8, in which Hashem informs Moshe about the golden calf that the Jewish people had made. The other verse is Bamidbar 14:19, in which Moshe beseeched Hashem to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the spies.
It is quite unusual that the only two verses in the entire Torah that begin with the letter samech are both associated with the concept of sin. Additionally, the Kinnos that we say on Tisha B'Av morning begin with a dirge that is written as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet, but instead of starting from the letter aleph, it begins with samech, again linking this letter to themes of sadness and mourning. What is the deeper meaning of the letter samech, and why does it have such negative associations?
Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that the significance of the letter samech is based on its circular shape. When a person draws a line, the line can go in any direction and therefore symbolizes unlimited potential. A circle, on the other hand, no matter how much it twists and curves, ultimately returns to its starting point. The purpose of life is to constantly grow and change for the better. The ultimate tragedy is when a person wastes his tremendous potential by living the life of a circle, setting out on each day's journey, only to end up back where he started. He lives each day as he has lived every previous day, going off to work, eat, and sleep, but by repeating this daily routine, ultimately his life is heading nowhere. In this sense, the samech, with its circular shape, represents the tragedy of an unexamined and unenlightened spiritual life, as humans are expected to live elevated lives of constant striving and spiritual accomplishment.
The physical world, on the other hand, is a world of circles, as natural cycles continuously repeat themselves. In fact, the first appearance of the letter samech in the Torah is in Bereishis 2:11 in a word describing a river that goes around in a circle. In this sense, the very reasons why the letter samech has such negative spiritual implications make it quite appropriate for describing the physical world.
With this insight, we can now understand why the letter samech has no place in the blessings found in the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai, which are specifically intended for those who toil in intensive Torah study (Rashi 26:3). Rather, the letter samech and the message it conveys are particularly fitting in the Torah's discussions of the sins of the golden calf and the spies, and as we mourn the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash through the Tisha B'Av Kinnos.
In the positive direction, the Rokeach also points out that Birkas Kohanim - the Priestly Blessing - contains 60 letters, which is the numerical value of the letter samech. What is the connection between Birkas Kohanim and the letter samech? The blessings contained in Parshas Bechukosai are conditional in nature; we will only receive them if we engage in Torah study and observe the mitzvos. The Rokeach explains that Birkas Kohanim is an even loftier blessing, as it is completely unconditional. There is no stipulation that one must obey the Torah's laws in order to receive this blessing, as the power of the Kohen's blessing is that it can be fulfilled even if the recipient is undeserving.
Just as the letter samech is omitted from the blessings in Parshas Bechukosai to hint that they are only applicable to somebody engaged in spiritual growth, so too samech is precisely the number of letters in Birkas Kohanim to convey that the Priestly Blessing is completely independent of a person's spiritual growth or lack thereof, as even a person living the life of a circle who goes to hear Birkas Kohanim will receive tremendous blessings.
After discussing the numerous blessings that we will merit if we study Torah diligently and observe the mitzvos, Parshas Bechukosai continues to say that if we reject the commandments and fail to observe them, Hashem will punish us with numerous curses, the first of which is behala - feelings of panic and pressure.
Rav Shmuel Dovid Walkin writes that if one looks around at the state of the world today, the fulfillment of this curse is evident, as we have lost the attribute of patience, and the need for immediate gratification grows by the day. For example, when it comes to traveling, nobody today would be willing to take an intercity trip by wagon, and even lengthy journeys by car and train are considered burdensome and uncomfortable. Eventually, the time will come that people will be unable to endure a lengthy flight, as it will run counter to the need for instant fulfillment to which we have become accustomed. This impatience is not limited to traveling; it extends to all areas of our lives.
Conventional wisdom maintains that each invention or technological advance that shaves off minutes, seconds, or even nanoseconds from the time required to complete an activity is considered progress and should be encouraged and built upon. The Torah, on the other hand, has a different perspective, as it clearly states that if we fail to properly observe the mitzvos, the first curse that will be meted out, which serves as the introduction to all of the other curses, is behala, which from Hashem's vantage-point is not considered a blessing.
The Torah goes further and reveals to us that the true source for these feelings of pressure that permeate every aspect of our lives are not technological breakthroughs designed to save us time, but rather punishments for the lack of patience that we demonstrated in serving Hashem without the proper joy and concentration, thereby transforming the mitzvos into heavy burdens to be fulfilled and dispensed with as quickly as possible. The Torah promises that Hashem will punish such an impatient attitude toward Torah study and mitzvah observance by removing our patience in all areas of our lives. We are witnessing the fulfillment of this curse before our very eyes, as people spend every waking moment constantly running from one place to the next and rushing from the completion of one task to the next item on the "to do" list, and even when we are supposedly at rest in our beds, our minds are still unable to relax, as they dart from thought to thought remembering all of the chores and activities that we have yet to accomplish, thereby depriving us of the ability to sleep soundly and peacefully. Although Rav Walkin's insights seem to perfectly describe the busy lives that we lead in 2014, it is recorded by his uncle, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his work Oznayim L'Torah. Rav Sorotzkin died in 1966, and Rav Walkin passed away in 1979; if these were their impressions of their contemporaries, one can only imagine what they would say if they were alive today.
Rav 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 Rav returned a mere three days later to ask him to contribute once again.
Rav Aharonson explained that when separating the tithe of one's animals, the Torah 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?
Rav 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 Hashem. This procedure is much more palatable since it allows him to focus on how many animals remain for him. Similarly, Rav 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 Rav'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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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Rashi explains (26:3) that the expression Im bechukosai teileichu - if you will walk in my ways - refers to diligently studying the Torah. Why is Torah study considered an illogical chok when it seems quite straightforward that must study the Torah in order to know and understand the mitzvos? (Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Ayeles HaShachar)
2) In the middle of the rebuke, Hashem mentions (26:42) that He will remember His covenant with our forefathers. What is the intention of this verse and its placement? (Shelah HaKadosh, Chiddushei Beis Yosef, Dubno Maggid, Darkei Mussar)
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