Reward and Punishment

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT KI TAVO

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

Reward and Punishment

Summarized by Rav Menachem Linzer

 

I. INTRODUCTION: THE TWO TOKHACHOT

At the end of Vayikra and near the end of Devarim, we find the tokhachot - long rebukes that warn the Jews of their fate if they transgress the Torah. The tokhecha in parashat Bechukotai is uttered by God, while the one in Ki Tavo is uttered by Moshe. There are many differences between the two, and the gemara (Bava Batra 88b) compares them as follows:

"Rav Levi said: Come and see how the traits of God are unlike the traits of man. God blessed Yisrael with twenty two letters and cursed them with eight. He blessed them with twenty two from 'Im be-chukotai' to 'komemiut' [the first and last letters being aleph and tav, respectively], and He cursed them with eight, from 'Ve-im be-chukotai tim'asu' to 've-et chukotai ga'ala nafshechem' [vav through mem]. However, Moshe Rabbeinu blessed them with eight and cursed them with twenty two. He blessed them with eight, from 'Ve-haya im shamoa tishma' until 'le-avdam' [vav through mem], and he cursed them with twenty two from 've-haya im lo tishma' until 've-ein koneh' [vav through hey]."

II. THE PREDICTED OUTCOME

While Rav Levi compares the two tokhachot only in a quantitative sense, his observation holds true when we examine the contents of the two tokhachot as well. The locus of dissonance manifests itself in two ways:

a) in the conclusions of the tokhachot, and

b) in the severity and scope.

Moshe concludes all the terrible curses:

"And God will return you to Egypt in ships, along the path that I told you, 'You will not see again;' and you will be sold there as slaves to your enemies, but there will be no buyers." (Devarim 28:68)

You will return to Egypt - the place I forbade you from returning to, and that I promised you that you will never return to! Egypt is not only a geographical area; it represents a state of being. Returning to Egypt means that there will be a reversal of the Exodus and of the giving of the Torah, devolving back to, at best, a national existence devoid of any spiritual life.

In contrast, the tokhacha in Bechukotai, although it too speaks of terrible horrors, ends on a positive note and tells of Bnei Yisrael returning to God, and God returning to Bnei Yisrael. God promises us that we will repent:

"And the remainders will repent for their sins... and they will confess their sins as well as their fathers' sins..." (Vayikra 26:39-40)

God also promises us that He will remember His covenant with the Patriarchs:

"I will remember My covenant with Ya'akov, as well as My covenant with Yitzchak, as well as my covenant with Avraham." (Vayikra 26:42-45)

While Moshe's tokhecha ends with the virtual breakdown of the unique relationship between Bnei Yisrael and God, God's tokhacha concludes with a reaffirmation of this relationship - both from the people's side and from God's.

III. IDOLATRY AS BOTH SIN AND PUNISHMENT

The second difference between the two tokhachot is in their severity. In Ki Tavo, the tokhacha reads:

"And God will spread you out unto all the nations - from one end of the world to the other - and there you will worship other gods of wood and stone, whom neither you nor you fathers knew." (Devarim 28:64)

Idol worship, the worst of all sins, is the cause of the curses in Bechukotai as well. However, in Moshe's tokhacha, it is not only the cause; it is the punishment itself.

What is idol worship? It is turning away completely from God, forsaking the King of Kings for wood and stone! In Tehillim (73:28), King David says, "And I, nearness to God is good for me" - "goodness" depends on how close you are to God. The curse that Benei Yisrael will turn to idol worship represents the complete separation of Bnei Yisrael from God - the worst possible thing in the world, worse than the curse that you will eat your own children!

On the other hand, Moshe's blessing promises: "God will make you a holy nation" (Devarim 28:9), and Ibn Ezra says that this refers to keeping the commandments. Again, not only is the keeping of the commandments the cause for the blessings, but it is also the ultimate blessing itself.

IV. MESSAGE OF ACTION

In our times, unfortunately, we see so many of our brothers in Klal Yisrael who are completely disconnected from anything Jewish. We witness entire communities completely divorced from Judaism, worshipping the modern equivalent of wood and stone!

However, when we look in Parashat Va-etchanan, we find a mini-tokhacha given by Moshe Rabbeinu whose content is similar to the one in Ki Tavo:

"And you will worship, there, gods the work of man, wood and stone, who do not see, do not smell, do not eat and do not hear." (Devarim 4:28)

However, as opposed to Ki Tavo, this parasha ends:

"And you will seek God from where you are and you will find Him... And [He] will not forget the covenant with your forefathers." (Devarim 4:29-31)

Thus, even within the tokhecha of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Torah guarantees an ultimate return on the part of Bnei Yisrael as well as from the side of God.

It is based on this promise of redemption that we, as bnei Torah who are privileged to be brought up with a Torah education, and to be exposed to Torah personalities in the world of the Beit Midrash, are charged with the responsibility - both towards God and towards our fellow members of Klal Yisrael - to try to bring closer these people who have become distanced from Judaism. We must all feel, and teach others to feel, that closeness to God, keeping His mitzvot, is the ultimate good, and that distance from God, obliviousness to His word, is the ultimate evil.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Ki Tavo 5755 [1995].)

 


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