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Torah Attitude: Parashas Behar - Bechukosai: Warnings before Shavuous
Ezra instituted that the warnings in Parashas Bechukosai should be read before Shavuous and those in Parashas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashanah. The Kabbalists explain that the judgment on Shavuous regarding the fruits of the tree refers to the souls that grow on G'd's Tree. Before G'd punishes the Jewish people, He warns us three times to repent and come back to His ways. As a first warning, G'd punishes other nations of the world. As a second warning G'd brings about financial difficulties. As a third warning G'd brings punishment on one of the towns in Israel. The Book of Ruth shows how far G'd goes to avoid punishing the person who sins.
In the second of this week's two parashios, G'd warns the Jewish people about the consequences if we do not follow the Torah. The Talmud (Megillah 31b) says that Ezra instituted that these warnings should be read before Shavuous and those in Parashas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashanah. In this way, it serves as an omen that all our difficulties shall stop with the end of the year.
Shavuous new year
The Talmud asks an obvious question. We can understand that this is appropriate in regard to the warnings mentioned in Ki Savo, which are read before Rosh Hashanah. However, since when is Shavuous considered a Rosh Hashanah beginning a new year? The Talmud answers that Shavuous is indeed a Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 16a) states that there are four days of judgment a year. On Shavuous the world is judged regarding the fruits of the trees. We may ask why does this make Shavuous the beginning of a new year more than Pesach when the world is being judged regarding produce and Succos regarding rain? Ezra could have organized the weekly parashios so that the warnings could have been read before Pesach.
Souls on G'd's Tree
Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, better known as the Shelah, writes that on Shavuous we shall be extremely happy since this is the day when the Jewish people merited to receive the Crown of the Torah. We shall rejoice and celebrate with a spiritual dimension to our celebration. We must make an effort to improve our deeds and sanctify ourselves, says the Shelah, so that we are worthy to be crowned with the Crown of the Torah. He further says that we must realize that we are being judged on Shavuous. G'd investigates our deeds on Rosh Hashanah since on this day, there is a renewal of the entire creation. In the same way, says the Shelah, on the day when the Torah was given, it is also a day of renewal, and G'd investigates our deeds. He quotes the Kabbalists who explain that when our sages say that on Shavuous there is a judgment regarding the fruits of the tree, on a deeper level this refers to our souls that "grow" on G'd's Tree. We are being judged on this day regarding our relationship with the Torah. G'd investigates whether we, the "fruits", have "bloomed" and "ripened" in our observance of Torah and the commandments.
Renewal and judgment
With this insight, we understand the special character of Shavuous. It is a day of renewal and judgment, and this obligates all of us to analyze where we are holding, both on a personal level and as a community. Just like before Rosh Hashanah we read the warnings in Parasha Ki Savo as an omen that all calamities and other difficulties shall be of the past, so do we read the warnings in this week's parasha with the hope that no more difficulties shall befall any individual or community.
The Midrash Tanchuma in the first of this week's two parashios (Behar para.3) describes that before G'd's punishes the Jewish people, He first gives us three warnings to wake us up to repent and return to His ways. As a first warning, says the Midrash, G'd punishes other nations for their sins and misconduct. This is meant to serve as a reminder to us of the Divine Judgment. As it says (Zephaniah 3:6-7): "I cut down the nations, make desolate their towers, destroy their marketplaces …I said, so that you should fear Me and you should learn a lesson, so that your place should not need to be cut down."
Second and third warnings
If after the first warning we do teshuvah and return to observe the Torah, our judgment will be good, and we will be spared any punishment. But if not, G'd will bring financial difficulties as a second warning. If this does not help, as a third warning, G'd will punish one of the towns in Israel. If this still does not help, His Wrath will affect all of us.
Book of Ruth
The Midrash brings G'd's conduct with Elimelech's sons in the Book of Ruth, that we read on Shavuous, as an example how far G'd goes to avoid punishing the person who sins. Naomi's husband, Elimelech, was the leader of his generation. When a famine struck the land of Israel, he left his country and fellow Jews to fend for themselves, and he took his family to safety in the land of Moab. Obviously, G'd got very angry with Elimelech, and he died soon after arriving in Moab (Ruth 1:3). This was supposed to serve as a message to his children to return home to Israel. However, they did not get the message. On the contrary, they assimilated and married two gentile women, Ruth and Orpah. For ten years G'd waited for Elimelech's sons to return to the land of Israel. He warned them in various ways, but they did not repent. Eventually, G'd brought about that their animals died. When this did not help, G'd finally punished them directly and they both died in Moab.
Most Jews today are very far from observing Torah. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a spiritual holocaust with rampant assimilation and extremely high levels of intermarriage. The majority of our children grow up with no Jewish education, and are easy targets for missionaries, or seek spirituality in cults in the Far East. Although we have many fine Ba'alei Teshuva who have returned to live a Torah life, we are losing more than we gain.
As we read the warnings of the Torah this week, we must take it to heart and understand that G'd is talking to every one of us, telling us to return to a Torah lifestyle. We are all responsible for each other, and as such we must help and encourage our estranged brothers and sisters to come back home to the Torah.
May G'd help us to understand His message, and may the reading of the warnings be an omen that all our difficulties shall be part of our past. As we approach the Judgment of Shavuous, may all the "fruits" be blessed with a good judgment that they shall develop fully and continue to "grow" on G'd's tree, and be a blessing to themselves and all mankind.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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