Parshas Bechukosai - Meaning of the First Tochachah

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May 07 2009
Parshas B'chukosai features the first Tochachah - the grand reproof for violating the Torah. The second Tochachah appears in Parshas Ki Savo. Whereas the first Tochachah represents a systematic, finite set of punishments and an emphasis that God's regular, special protection would be replaced by temporary wanton treatment of the Jews during rebuke, the second Tochachah contains a perceived unending, patternless punishment with no sense of God's closeness. One who reads the first Tochachah gets the impression that the removal of God's Presence is an exception to the rule; the latter Tochachah implies that His Presence was hidden and not readily perceived as the norm.

The Ramban compellingly demonstrates that the first Tochachah refers to the destruction and exile at the period of the Bayis Rishon (First Temple), and that the second Tochachah prophesizes the fate of the Jewish People at the time of the destruction of the Bayis Sheni (Second Temple).

Why does the first Tochachah appear in this week's parshah? The themes of Sefer Vayikra, which Parshas B'chukosai concludes, do not really relate to punishment. As the Ramban himself explains, Vayikra is called "Sefer Ha-avodah", the Book of Divine Service; what, then, does it have to do with exile and devastation as a result of sins?

Sefer Vayikra presents Torah life in the ideal. Close communion with Hashem permeates the fabric of every parshah, and Bnei Yisroel are enveloped in the kedushah of the Mishkan. The dominance of God's Presence is readily sensed, and life is punctuated with spirituality. It is thus fitting that the first Tochachah be presented at the conclusion of Sefer Vayikra, as this Tochachah depicts clarity of God's Presence and a systematic and well-understood set of punishments, which was appropriate for those living in the veil of the Shechinah and to whom Hashem's ways were understood. The first Tochachah symbolizes God's wrath in a state of Gilui Panim - when the Divine Presence is revealed - and punishment is clear, defined to all and systematic, consonant with life of regular interaction and perception of Hashem's very revealed Presence.

The second Tochachah appears at the conclusion of the Midbar (Desert) experience. The Jewish People were ready to begin lives of work and were about to distance themselves from the Mishkan. Clear, direct communication from Hashem was to ebb, and an externally more "natural" phase was beginning. God's Hashgacha (Providence) was still felt, but the ability to ignore it and feel that all of life was "natural" presented a spiritual trial. Thus, the second Tochachah most fittingly appears at the end of the Torah, as this Tochachah reflects a state in which God's Face is hidden ("Hester Panim"), correlated to a life of less regular interaction with the Shechinah and pending punishment of the Shechinah's departure. (The Ramban points out that the Shechinah was present during the Bayis Rishon period but not during the time of the Bayis Sheni.)

May we merit to soon again perceive Gilui Shechinah and may God's revealed Presence again be in our midst.


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