Tochacha, Protest, and Building Moments of Faith

This Shabbat we complete the third book of Torah, the book of Leviticus, with parashat Bechukotai. After being told the rewards that they will receive if they follow God’s laws and faithfully observe God’s commandments, God tells the Israelites:

But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you.. (Leviticus 26:14-16)

What follows is a long, harsh, and very detailed list of the consequences: Sickness, war, famine, ecological devastation, fear, and heartbreak.

This section of Bechukotai is known as The Tochacha or The Rebuke. It is a promise by God to the Israelites of what will happen if they do not live holy lives in harmony with the Divine, their neighbors, and the land.

It is also biblical theodicy, an attempt to account for the presence of evil in the world, despite God’s presence, through the shortcomings of humankind.

As we seek to process the heartbreaking events of the last two weeks as well as the tremendous suffering over the last couple years, we seek explanations for the presence of evil in our world and want to know what we can do about it. How can we respond to such large-scale challenges? The solutions might seem common sense, but then why are they so difficult to enact?

It can be hard to maintain hope after tragic and traumatic events. I can understand feeling pessimism when nothing changes. When innocent people die and seemingly preventable tragedies continue to occur, how do we maintain our faith in God, in humanity, and in the great experiment of American democracy?

In an essay from 1977 entitled, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity after the Holocaust” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes that:

Faith is living life in the presence of the Redeemer, even when the world is unredeemed. After Auschwitz faith means there are times when faith is overcome. … We now have to speak of “moment faiths,” moments when Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with time when the flames and smoke…blot out faith–though it flickers again…

If Treblinka makes human hope an illusion, then the Western Wall asserts that human dreams are more real than force and facts. [The People of] Israel’s faith in the God of History demands that an unprecedented event of destruction be matched by an unprecedented act of redemption and this has happened…..to deny either pole (nihilism or redemption) in our lifetime is to be cut off from historical Jewish experience.

In the incredible dialectical tension between the two we are fated to live…..

That this pain will be incorporated in the round of life we regret; yet we may hope that it will not destroy hope but rather strengthen responsibility, will, and faith.” (From “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity after the Holocaust” in “Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era,” edited by Eva Fleischner, p.27)

Greenberg is looking back on history and preserving and evolving his faith, not by ignoring or limiting the tragedy, but by refusing to let that be the end of the conversion. Tremendous pain happened. The past cannot be changed. But the future is unwritten. That pain can strengthen our responsibility, will, and faith leading to an unprecedented, positive transformation.

Greenberg’s reading of history is not a promise that the same pattern will play out again, but a call to action. Hope is not what determines our ability to act. Rather, our willingness to respond in the face of pain and suffering, is what preserves hope.

I also would argue that Rabbi Greenberg is saying that as Jews, with our unique historical experience and memory, we bring a necessary perspective to these challenging moments: a long view of history and an understanding that tragedy can be followed by triumph.

We also bring our Torah and its endless wisdom. The Tochacha offers a biblical theodicy for the presence of evil in the world, but I think an understanding of small T tochacha offers a better recipe for how we should respond to this moment.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus contains many of the central ethical teachings of Judaism. At the heart of it, the Torah states: (Leviticus 19:17-18)

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ

Do not hate your brother in your heart

הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ

You shall surely give tochacha or rebuke your kin

וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

But incur no guilt on their account.

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people.

וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ

Love your neighbor as yourself

אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃

I am God.

Moses Maimonides explains that these series of commands – Do Not Hate, Give tochacha or rebuke, Don’t incur guilt, don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge, and love your neighbor – are not separate, isolated teachings, but rather precede one from the other. To paraphrase the Rambam’s explanation:

If a person does something wrong, do not hate them, but rebuke them, because holding in the hatred, letting it fester in one’s heart is bad and leads to sin. Rather reproach them, so they justify themselves or admit their sin. That enables the enmity to dissolve and love to emerge.

Tochacha is what dissolves hatred and creates love. It’s what prevents division from growing and repairs relationships. I’ll admit that giving tochacha, one person to another is not a perfect system, because the person who acted in immoral and harmful ways has to be able to actually take in the feedback, which is why there lot of wisdom in the Jewish tradition about how and when to offer rebuke – but it is a crucial step on the path to living holy lives and bringing holiness into the world. It is not enough to not hate our brother in our heart and love our neighbor, we must be willing to admonish those who perpetuate harm.

Of course, the corollary to rebuke is protest. Better to prevent harm from happening than to admonish the one who did it. The Talmud teaches that no person is an island. Our lives are interdependent and must acknowledge that we have a responsibility for one another. In Tractate Shabbat (54b) we read:

Anyone who has the capability to protest the sins of their household and does not protest, they themself are responsible for the sins of their household. And if they are in a position to protest the sins of the people of their town, and they fail to do so, they are responsible for the sins of the people of their town. And if they are in a position to protest the sins of the whole world, and they fail to do so, they are responsible for the sins of the whole world.

What an overwhelming responsibility that can feel like when bad news comes from every corner of the globe to our phones in an instant. We must not give up because the task feels too large. Tochacha depends on being heard and we should begin with those who can hear us. Think about who you can call, who will read your letter, who will see you marching, and standing in protest. That is your circle of responsibility.

Hazak – May we find the strength to give tochacha to those who need to be rebuked.

Hazak – May we find the strength to protest and prevent the sins within our circle of responsibility.

V’nitchazek – And may we strengthen each other’s faith in a world of peace, justice, love, and equality by creating moments of faith that build one upon the other, until we experience an unprecedented act of redemption.

Shabbat Shalom.