Parashat Bechukotai – Fear and Love of Hakadosh Baruch Hu
Although this article will be discussing punishments, it is still heartbreaking to witness a tragic incident. Along with the rest of the Jewish nation, I am devastated because of the horrific events of last week’s Meron tragedy. May it be the last tragedy the Jewish nation ever faces.
Bechukotai has more Psukim discussing curses than blessings. Specifically, while the list of blessings constitutes verses 3-13, the verses talking about curses range from verse 14 all the way until verse 43. Doing the math by subtracting the two, there are 29 more psukim describing curses than blessings; almost 300%. Why?
According to the Ibn Ezra, there is a direct tie between the quantity of the verses based on the quality. The blessings are given in general terms and as such, don’t take up as much space. By comparison, though, the curses are given in great detail with the intention to scare the people to follow Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s will.
וריקי מוח אמרו כי הקללו׳ רבות מהברכות ולא אמרו אמת רק נאמרו הברכות כלל ונאמרו בקללות פרטים לירא ולהפחיד. השומעי׳ והמסתכל היטב יתברר לו דברי:
The empty heads say that there are more curses than blessings. However, they do not speak the truth. What Scripture does is to speak of the blessings in general terms. However, it lists the curses in detail in order to frighten and scare the listeners. What I say will be clear to the one who reads the text carefully.Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 26, Parashat Bechukotai [3rd Aliya], verse 14
This idea of fearing Hashem isn’t only found in Parashat Bechukotai, though. There are multiple times in our Torah where the words “You shall fear your God” is used, including twice in (one of) this week’s parasha.
וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
Do not wrong one another, and fear your God; for I the LORD am your God.Parashat Behar [2nd Aliya], verse 17
אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ׃
do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.Parashat Behar [5th Aliya], verse 36
Of course, context matters and each of these cases have their own independent reason for saying “Fear your God”, but the general rule still applies. In fact, David Hamelech writes in Tehilim 111 (which Sepharadim read every Mincha of Shabbat) that the beginning of all wisdom lies in fear of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. It’s also a treasure according to the prophet Isaiah.
רֵ֘אשִׁ֤ית חָכְמָ֨ה ׀ יִרְאַ֬ת יְהוָ֗ה שֵׂ֣כֶל ט֭וֹב לְכָל־עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ עֹמֶ֥דֶת לָעַֽד׃
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD; all who practice it gain sound understanding. Praise of Him is everlasting.Psalms 111:10
וְהָיָה֙ אֱמוּנַ֣ת עִתֶּ֔יךָ חֹ֥סֶן יְשׁוּעֹ֖ת חָכְמַ֣ת וָדָ֑עַת יִרְאַ֥ת יְהוָ֖ה הִ֥יא אוֹצָרֽוֹ׃
Faithfulness to Your charge was [her] wealth, Wisdom and devotion [her] triumph, Reverence for the LORD—that was her treasure.Isaiah 33:6
So how could we say things such as “I want to honor Hashem with only love and not fear”? How could individuals like us think “Oh, Hakadosh Baruch Hu and I have a buddy-buddy connection and he loves us so I can get away with breaking his laws”?
The above was not a question that I would be answering, as it was rhetorical. (The Kiruv Rabbis could take up the job instead, I’d rather not make assumptions on people as it’s not my place to judge others). The purpose of bringing it down, though, is to make you think. Chovot Halevavot brings down that we aren’t needed and we’re only existing at Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s mercy, so we should not be pushing said mercy to its limit.
If the above has changed your perspective on Hakadosh Baruch Hu as someone to fear as opposed to buddy-buddy and you’ve started to take on new mitzvot, it is very likely that they might feel burdensome. Human psychology dictates that when you commit a demand out of fear instead of a request out of appreciation, you tend to consider the demand to be a burden rather than something they could potentially enjoy.
As an example, take a school student who was given an assignment to read a book in a specific way, which they happened to have read previously and actually enjoy. As they read through it with the mindset of being forced to do it and the newfound limitations, though, they feel the opposite of the enjoyment they felt when they previously read it. Once the student has finally completed his task, the book would gain a new negative perspective. No longer would it be something they would go back to on leasures, but rather it would be something that they would try to avoid.
The above describes a student, though, one who doesn’t really realize what his goal is in life. As adults, we should be realizing that our entire purpose for existance is to serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Once we realizing that we are fulfilling our purpose, this gives value into what we are doing. No longer would the mitzvot feel like a burden, but rather something that one would find immense enjoyment is.
This is how we should serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and this is why the Pasuk writes “If you will go with my laws”. Mitzvot aren’t a physical portable object we could take with us on vacation. Rather, they are spiritual commandments that cannot move from their position. To reflect this initial understanding, we might come to think that it should have used “observe”, “listen”, “fulfill” or any other verb to signify this initial understanding.
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃
If you will go with my laws and keeep my commandments and do themLeviticus 26, Parashat Bechukotai [1st Aliya], verse 3
HaGaon Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim, though, teaches us that the rewards described by that opening section only apply to someone who goes with the mitzvot with a feeling of ease and purpose, rather than purely out of fear of not getting punished. The fear needs to be there, yes, but that’s only the first step. Not only do we need to fear Hakadosh Baruch Hu, but we also need to love him and do all of our actions on our planet for the name of heaven. Hopefully with that, we could all obtain to reach that level, and have the merit to bring Mashiach in our days.