27 Iyar 5779

Once upon time, there was a meeting in a synagogue. Like many meetings in a synagogue, it was getting heated! It happened in this week, the week when the Torah portion, Bechukotai (Leviticus26:3 – 27:34)was approaching; and, the co-leader of services was adamant! During that portion, a section known as the, “Tochacha,” is read. There are a number of such passages in the Torah; and what they have in common, is that the Torah details with great foresight, the misfortunes that the Jewish people will face, if they disregard the Torah. Usually, they have a positive section first, which says, “these are the blessings that will come to you if you follow God’s laws.”  

But then comes the second section, with the harrowing curses and the gruesome details of what will happen to you if you do not follow God’s laws; and they are enough to send a shutter up anyone’s spine! Because of that, most people are reluctant to be called up to the Torah to receive that Aliyah. Someone has to do it, so the job usually falls on the co-leaders of services. But nobody wanted it! Everybody seemed to have had their share of bad luck the previous year, and nobody wanted to push the envelope.

No one, therefore, wanted the honor.   And so, on the Wednesday before that Shabbat, the meeting was called. The Worship leader was the first to call out. He shouted,“I will not take the Tochchathis year.” Two weeks after the previous year’s Aliyah, his life went kaput! And, he added for the curious and the equally, eager congregants, “I’m not going to elaborate!” Another voice, a mile or two away from this one, screamed out from the crowd and said, “It’s time to give it to the Rabbi!” But, the Rabbi demurred. She said, “People, if you take a look at my contract, it says I get the third Aliyah, every week. The Tochacha this year, is the fifth Aliyah.”

So, smiling she said, “I am exempt!”  

Well, preemptively, the President stormed up quickly, and said, “Don’t expect me to be called for the Tochacha! It’s not going to happen! My job is to tidy up the Temple, and make sure that everything is in order. I won’t stand up there to hear the curses of the Tochacha.” Well, the worship committee was about to cancel the service for that Shabbat; when an elderly gentleman spoke up in the back. He said, “If you pay me one hundred and fifty dollars, I will take the Tochacha.” There was silence. And then in unison, all heads nodded.  

The people had never met the stranger, but he was their salvation. They told him when the services began; and he said that he would see them that Shabbat. When Shabbat came, the cantor began, but the old man was not there. It came time to take out the Torah, and he was still not there. The Rabbi decided to speak before the Torah reading, just to stall and draw out the length of the service a little bit, in the hopes that he might arrive. And then they started reading the Torah- very slowly. It was not until the fourth Aliyah, that the old man burst into the Temple panting. He had made it! He got his Aliyah. But, as soon as he stepped off the bima, the service co-leader cornered him. “Where were you? Do you know how much you scared us?” The old man said, “Do you think a Jew can make a living from just one Tochacha?”  

Listen to how this section works: The opening of the portion says,“If you follow my laws and favorably observe my commandments, I will grant you rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce, and the trees, the field of their fruit…” And then, after thirteen good verses, it says, “But if you do not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments; if you reject my laws, and spurn my rules…I, in turn, will do this to you. I will wreak misery upon you; consumption and fever, which causes the eyes to pine, and the body languish, and you will sow your seeds for no purpose, for your enemy shall eat it…” And then it gets grosser, and grosser! So, what is the Torah trying to teach us?  

I believe what the Torah wants to tell us is, that actions have consequences; that there is reward and there is punishment. If you do something, something will happen and you have to stand up, and take responsibility for it. Sounds obvious? Not in our world- it’s always someone else’s fault. Everyone needs to take responsibility. When they do, the world will be a much better place.