Blessings Through Curses

This week’s parasha is Bechukotai, infamous for its long list of curses. Tragically, we find that all of those curses have been realized in Jewish history. And yet, we also find that out of each catastrophe comes tremendous blessing. God declares that although He will punish the nation, He “will not despise them nor reject them” for the covenant is everlasting. The punishment serves only as retribution, middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure”, but it also has a deeper purpose to bring forth renewed life. Let’s take three examples from the past two millennia to demonstrate this phenomenon.

‘Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem’ by Francesco Hayez (1867)

The “mother” of all catastrophes was the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the subsequent exile of many Jews out of the Holy Land. The war itself took the lives of myriads (eyewitness Josephus recorded at least 1.1 million deaths). When including the subsequent Roman-Jewish Wars up to the Bar Kochva Revolt, millions more suffered and perished. At the same time, however, this is when Judaism as we know it was forged. It was because of the threat of Roman destruction that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi committed the Mishnah to writing, and that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed the deepest secrets of Torah that would become the Zohar. Also at this time were recorded the first works of Midrash and Halakhah. All of this led to a proliferation of Jewish writings and commentaries that made Judaism rich and boundless. Meanwhile, synagogues flourished in lieu of a Temple and study halls became widespread to ensure the law would not be forgotten. Those laws that could not be fulfilled without a Temple were adapted into new ordinances. In short, Judaism as we know it would not have existed without the Roman-Jewish Wars that necessitated its development.

Fast forward to 1492 and the Spanish Expulsion. Many died at the hands of the Inquisition, many more were forcibly converted, and the majority were kicked out and had their wealth confiscated. After some seven thriving centuries, Jewish life in Spain was extinguished. The catastrophe led many Sephardic Jews to immerse in Jewish mysticism, and spread Kabbalistic texts—previously concentrated in Sephardic Spain—around the world. A large number of exiles settled in Tzfat (most notably Rav Yosef Saragossi, who spearheaded the town’s revival), transforming it into a massive Torah centre where so much was produced, including the central code of Jewish law (the Shulchan Arukh), the revolutionary teachings of the Arizal, and popular songs like Lecha Dodi. Victims of the Inquisition like Dona Gracia and her nephew Don Joseph set the stage for the Zionist movement, and are considered the first official “proto-Zionists”. Sephardic Jews going east to other parts of Europe also planted the seeds of Hasidic Judaism—the prayer style of which is still referred to as Nusach Sefarad.

Finally, we come to what is the single greatest catastrophic event in Jewish history, the Holocaust. As horrendous and tragic as it was, it is also not a coincidence that Israel was reborn immediately after the Holocaust. As is commonly stated, the Holocaust resulted in more global compassion and support for a Jewish state, and certainly helped at the United Nations. More significantly, the Holocaust proved to many formerly-assimilated European Jews that they would never be accepted as Europeans. If a “civilized”, liberal, and modern country like Germany could so quickly and so brutally turn on its Jews, nowhere was safe. Jews who previously believed they could flourish in the diaspora now understood that the Jewish people needed a state of their own. Related to this, the Holocaust produced hundreds of thousands of refugees needing a new home, and Israel was the obvious choice for most of them. Exact statistics are hard to find, but it is estimated that two-thirds of survivors ended up in Israel, and today there are still about 230,000 left. Many of them fought valiantly in the War of Independence—they knew what they were fighting for!—and inspired their fellow Israelis, so much so that Yitzhak Sadeh, then-commander of the Palmach, said:

They are the ghetto fighters, those who fought in the forests, those who did not surrender even when they were in hell. This is heroism of the highest order, pure heroism, and they are bringing this asset with them. We shall learn from them.

And while the survivors saw all the curses of Bechukotai realized in the Holocaust, they also came to witness all the blessings of Bechukotai realized in Israel. For instance, during the Holocaust they experienced the curse that “I will bring upon you an avenging army… and you will be gathered into your cities. I will incite the plague in your midst, and you will be delivered into the enemy’s hands…” (Leviticus 26:25) Jews were forcibly gathered into ghettos and concentration camps, where thousands of Jews perished due to disease. In November of 1940 alone, a typhus outbreak in the newly-formed Warsaw Ghetto killed 25,000 Jews. Yet, those who survived and made it to Israel would experience the miraculous blessing that “Five of you will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.” (26:8)

In the Independence War, Israel initially had no more than 30,000 troops fighting a combined Arab force that had at least double that number. In the Battle of Tel-Aviv, Israel’s nascent air force, with just four old and damaged planes smuggled from Czechoslovakia, was able to halt the entire Egyptian advance (with an air force of 60 planes), which bizarrely fled in fear. In the Battle of Tzfat, the Arabs were securely entrenched atop a fortified hill. Israeli forces fired a very noisy and useless old Davidka mortar that caused no damage. At the same time, however, it got cloudy and dark, and miraculously started to rain—which never happened in the summer. The Arabs thought the noise, dark clouds, and rain were the result of an atomic bomb and fled! Tzfat was captured without a casualty.

Another example: In the Holocaust, the Jews experienced the curse that “ten women will bake bread in one oven… you will eat and not be satiated” (26:26) and even that some might come to consume human flesh out of desperate starvation (26:29). Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, the leading rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto, even had to address the question of whether it was permitted for a starving person who was near-death to consume the flesh of a dead human in order to stay alive. On the other hand, in modern Israel, Jews have experienced tremendous abundance and sustenance, literally making the deserts bloom, and realizing the blessing that “the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit… you will eat your food to satiety, and you will dwell securely in your land.” (Leviticus 26:4-5) Today, Israel exports fruit around the world, as well as baked goods and prized wines, just as the parasha says that there will be an overflow of grain and wine. Indeed, our Sages (Sanhedrin 98a) stated that this is the foremost sign of the coming Redemption:

There can be no greater sign of the redemption than what is said: “But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people of Israel, for they are at hand to come.” [Ezekiel 36:8]

And, despite the challenges and political issues, Israel does indeed “dwell securely”, being by far the dominant superpower in the Middle East, and suffering far less casualties than one might expect under the circumstances. The official count of Jews that have fallen in Israel, as of this moment, stands at 24,068 victims of war, plus 4,216 victims of terror and “hostile acts”. This is counting not from 1948 independence, but from 1860 when the first modern Jewish settlement of Mishkenot Sha’ananim was founded outside of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Montefiore Quarter of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, in 1948 and today. The founding of the town was financed by Sir Moses Montefiore and the estate of Judah Touro.

So, a total of 28,284 have tragically been martyred in Israel over a span of 162 years. For comparison, this is still less than the number that died in a single month in the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940, and roughly how many were killed in Auschwitz in just three days at its peak. It is far less than the number that perished over the Roman-Jewish Wars, or the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Khmelnitsky Massacres, or the pogroms. In other words, despite the odd terror attacks and occasional wars, Israel is arguably the safest place for a Jew to be not just anywhere in the world, but at any time in Jewish history! This is a clear realization of the prophecy of blessing in this week’s parasha.

Lastly, the parasha tells us that God “will turn towards you, and I will make you fruitful and increase you…” (26:9) The State of Israel went from having about 630,000 Jews at independence, to an estimated 6.9 million today—an eleven-fold increase in just 74 years. There are now more Jews living in Israel than anywhere else in the world. And Israel’s Jewish population continuing to grow rapidly, the highest rate in the Western world (while the rest of the Western world is languishing with drastically falling birth rates heading towards a population crisis). The Jewish birth rate has even surpassed the historically-high Arab birth rate, and some are sounding the alarm that Israel is on pace to be the second-most crowded country in the world by 2065!

All of this is a fulfilment of yet another prophecy (Bava Batra 75b):

In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lift up Jerusalem three parasangs high; for it is said: “And she shall be lifted up, and be settled in her place.” [Zechariah 14:10] … And lest you should think the ascent will be painful, it is expressly stated: “Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their cotes?” [Isaiah 60:8]

Buildings will soar to new heights, but the ascent will be like floating up on a cloud—a fitting ancient description for a modern elevator ride. More and more ever-taller buildings are under construction in Jerusalem (such as this one, nicknamed “Jerusalem’s Burj Khalifah”), as our Sages taught long ago (ibid.) that “In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will add to Jerusalem a thousand gardens, a thousand towers, a thousand palaces and a thousand mansions…”

In short, Jewish history itself might be the greatest proof for the Torah’s divinity, and the best demonstration of God’s direct supervision of our people. We have lived through the curses, but more so the blessings, and now stand at the cusp of the Final Redemption. Some might ask: why is it that certain generations of Jews had it so good, while others had it so bad? Why did some deserve to suffer in the Holocaust while others merited to prosper in Israel? One way to answer it is to remember that it is really the same set of souls that have reincarnated throughout the ages, starting at Sinai and continuing on to the present day. Thus, it is the very same souls that have lived through the worst of curses and the best of blessings. Every Jewish soul is a tapestry weaving together the entirety of Jewish history.

It is worth concluding with a famous anecdote about Rabbi Akiva and the Sages (Makkot 24b):

It once happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road, and they heard the sound of the multitudes of Rome at a distance of one hundred and twenty miles. The Sages began weeping and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They asked him: “Why are you laughing?” Rabbi Akiva said to them: “And why are you weeping?” They said to him: “These gentiles, who bow to false gods and burn incense to idols, dwell securely and tranquilly while we, for whom the House of the “footstool” of our God [the Temple] is burnt by fire—shall we not weep?” Rabbi Akiva said to them: “That is why I am laughing! For if those who violate His will are so [rewarded]; those who fulfil His will, how much more so [will they be rewarded]!”

On another occasion they were ascending to Jerusalem and when they arrived at Mount Scopus [and saw the Temple ruins], they tore their garments. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the [destroyed] Holy of Holies. They began weeping, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They asked him: “Why are you laughing?” Rabbi Akiva said to them: “Why are you weeping?” They said to him: “This is the place of which it is written: ‘And the stranger who approaches shall die’ (Numbers 1:51), and now foxes walk in it—shall we not weep?” Rabbi Akiva said to them: “That is why I am laughing!”

To paraphrase Rabbi Akiva’s lengthy answer, he explained that just as they had seen the negative prophecies of the Tanakh fulfilled in the Temple’s destruction, surely they would see the positive prophecies fulfilled, too. The Sages said: “Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!” And so, Rabbi Akiva reminds us that even in times that appear cursed, the blessings are inevitably on the way, and just as we have seen all the negative prophecies fulfilled, we will surely see all the positive ones realized soon, too.

Shabbat Shalom!