Posted by: Subway Conductor | May 7, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat BeHar BeChukotai

This week we have a double Torah portion – BeHar and BeChukotai. In the second of these portions we encounter a section which is known as the Tocheicha which means admonition or rebuke. The Tocheicha emphasizes the consequences of a failure by the People of Israel to follow G-d’s laws and keep His commandments. The list of curses is disturbing and seems an ominous portent of much of Jewish history.

The Talmud states that one should not break up the curses into more than one aliyah. This is to prevent saying a blessing over the curses. The way the portion is divided, we begin this section with a list of blessings, then follow the curses, and the section concludes with a positive sentiment. Dividing the portion in this way allows us to start and end with positive statements and the curses are sandwiched in between. If we divided the section into two aliyahs, we would be forced to end one aliyah with the curses and start the next again with curses. It is the custom in many synagogues to not call up someone for the aliyah, but rather to have the Torah reader take the aliya. It is also the custom to read the curses quickly and quietly, in an undertone. We might ask what is the purpose of reading it this way. After all, these words are written in the Torah. Clearly they are meant to teach us some lesson or to convey some message. The message is actually quite clear. These are warnings urging the Jewish People to observe the mitzvot. So, why do we read them in an undertone?

Three weeks ago, on the parsha of Tazria Metzora, I wrote about the power of speech. Tazrai Metzora is the locus for a discussion of leshon hara. I argued there that Judaism holds the power of speech in very high regard, both positive and negative speech. I mentioned there the importance of prayer in the form of specific words, the significance of uttering a blessing before we do certain things or eat, and the power of expressing gratitude. It may be that the customs surrounding the reading of the Tocheicha is another example of how seriously Judaism takes speech. We do not want to say these words out loud. Negative statements about the Jewish People and especially curses uttered concerning them are potentially dangerous.

In the Talmud, there are many examples where a statement that contains a negative sentiment in connection with the Jewish People is worded “the enemies of Israel” rather than “Israel.” This is a euphemism which is clearly understood by all those who read the text of the Talmud. Here too, we do not want to say out loud anything negative about the Jewish People. Words have power. To utter words is to let loose this power. This is certainly the explanation for the prohibition of leshon hara. But we see from the Tocheicha that we must be cautious even with words written in the Torah.

Good Shabbos! 

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