Tragedy and Repair

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein






With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzva,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise




ParashOt behar-bechukotai




Tragedy and Repair

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Parashat Bechokotai begins with the description of an ideal situation: “If (im) you follow My statutes… I shall give your rains at their proper times… and you will dwell securely in your land… and I shall lead you upright” (Vayikra 26:3-13). This situation is not only good and desirable; it is, in fact, complete and perfect. Immediately afterwards, the Torah describes the opposite reality: a situation in which the Jewish people are not fulfilling the Torah, and God responds accordingly: “And if (ve-im) you do not obey Me… and you despise My statutes and your souls loathe My judgments… and if you walk crookedly with Me…” (23:14 ff.).


The previous parasha, Behar, begins with the commandment of shemitta (the sabbatical year) – a mitzva which, more than any other, expresses faith in God. In an agricultural society, refraining from working the land for an entire year requires enormous faith and spiritual strength. Its fulfillment reflects a situation in which the people of Israel are living in their land, with faith in their God, carrying out His commandments – even those that are most difficult to maintain.


However, in parashat Behar, too, we find the Torah describing an acute deterioration: “When (ki) your brother grows poor and he sells some of his possession… And when a person sells a house that is located in a walled city… And when (ve-khi) your brother who dwells with you grows poor, and sells himself to you… And when a stranger who resides in your midst grows rich, and your brother grows poor beside him, and sells himself to the stranger who resides with you…” (25:25-55). Rashi (ad loc.) explains, citing Chazal, that the reason for the decline in the economic situation of so many amongst Bnei Yisrael is the failure to observe the mitzva of shemitta. The fortunes of the nation rise or fall depending on the way in which society conducts its economic activity and the manner in which it treats its poor.


There is a fundamental linguistic difference between the two descriptions of the difficult situation faced by Am Yisrael. In parashat Bechokotai, the Torah formulates its propositions in the conditional: “If you despise My statutes… if you walk crookedly with Me.” In other words, it is entirely possible for such a situation to come about, but by no means necessary or unavoidable. Am Yisrael can choose to observe God’s commandments and thereby prevent the realization of the horrifying descriptions in the parasha.


In parashat Behar, in contrast, we find repeated use of the word “ve-khi,” meant here in the sense of “when.” The Torah hints to us that the situation described in parashat Behar is inevitable: as an owner of property, man will almost certainly deteriorate morally to the point where he will cause harm to the weaker elements of society in order to protect his own property. The way in which we conduct our economic activity necessarily leads to the impoverishment of some members of society – “when your brother grows poor” – with all of its ramifications. It is a tragic trap, ingrained in man’s nature, leading to social disintegration.


The Torah warns us not to reach such a situation. This requires very close scrutiny and constant attention to the way in which we live our lives. We must regard the economic and social system, too, as matters of holiness – as a set of laws pertaining to our relationship with God no less than to our social relations. We must adapt our behavior in these spheres, too, to the directions and commandments of the Torah.


The haftara of parashat Behar carries a note of consolation: “For so says God… houses and fields and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land” (Yirmiyahu 32:15). The day will come when Bnei Yisrael will once again be able to live in the land, and it will once again be possible to live a full life in accordance with God’s Torah, and the nation will again be able to establish an ideal social order, as described at the beginning of the parasha.


May it be God’s will that we merit to live a life of holiness in all spheres and in all senses.