The famous 19th century blood libel in Russia that came to be known as the Beilis Trial was much more than the trial of just one man. Judaism as a whole stood accused, and its faithful defenders were forced to fend off repeated attacks while world Jewry rallied to their support.
The judge challenged the defense. He said: “It says in your Talmud: You the people of Israel are called adam, Man, yet the nations of the world are not called adam. What then do you consider the nations of the world to be, if not men? Would you call them animals?”
The rabbi acting as defense attorney explained: “In Hebrew there are two terms for man: ish and adam. Israel is called Adam because this term appears only in singular; there is no plural form. The Jews are described in singular because they are more than a mass of individuals. They alone, among the nations, are one. If a Jew on one side of the globe is in pain, a Jew thousands of miles away suffers with him. They are as limbs of one body.
“Tell me,” he continued, “if it were a Russian standing here accused of murder, would a Russian anywhere else on earth take an interest in his fate? Yet see how the Jews all over the world have come forward to help prove the innocence of their brother — for the Jewish people are one.”
The judge could not refute the truth. Beilis was eventually proven innocent.
This week’s portion of Bechukotai contains one of the most terrifying passages in the entire Torah. It describes what will happen to the Jewish people if they break their covenant with G-d.
“If in spite of this you will not listen to me … I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries … scatter you amongst the nations … your land will be laid waste … and for those who remain, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will cause them to flee; they will run as though fleeing from a sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them…” (Vayikra 26:28-36).
The verses in this chapter are so frightening and painful that the custom is to read them in an undertone, as though we are afraid to say them out loud.
These are more than just random words. The Jewish people, over the last three millennia, have tragically encountered more than their share of the fulfillment of these frightening prophecies. Indeed, it is a wonder that we are still here. Though some individuals understandably may have felt that the story was over, the Jewish people themselves never gave up.
There is a strange comment hidden in the painful verses of Bechukotai that may allude to why that is. The aforementioned verses continue “they will stumble over each other as they would before a sword, though no one is chasing them; you will have no power to stand before your enemies” (ibid. v. 37).
Rashi quotes the Midrash here that explains: “Do not read this as saying they will stumble over each other; rather it means they will stumble because of each other — because of each other’s sins. This teaches that all Israel are responsible one for another [kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh].”
One wonders how the rabbis learn such a positive principle from such a negative source. Why would the most terrifying portion in the entire Torah teach us such a heartwarming imperative?
It is interesting to note that the verse begins by speaking about Jews in the third person — “they will stumble” — but concludes in the first: “you will have no power before your enemies.” Why this change? Perhaps it is not random.
This is not the only Torah portion full of terrifying curses predicting a terrible fate that awaits the Jewish people should they neglect the covenant. The second is in Devarim 8. There too, the Torah tells us what will befall the Jewish people should we fail to live up to our moral mission. These are the only two texts that speak of a time when the Jewish people will suffer exile and be scattered amongst enemies in a foreign land.
And yet there are some fascinating differences between the two. Notably, in Devarim, it is Moshe who speaks to the Jewish people. He ends the chapter on a despairing note: “You will try to sell your selves as slaves … but none will buy you.” He speaks in the singular form, to each individual.
In Bechukotai, however, it is G-d who speaks to the Jewish people. He addresses them in the plural form, and the passage ends on a hope-filled promise: “But despite all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them nor despise them… I will remember the Covenant made with the first generation…”
It is understandable that people in a society recognize that they are dependent upon each other. If everyone simply does what they like without regard for their neighbors, civilization falls apart. If crime reigns, people are afraid to walk alone, and if there are no speeding limits and everyone drives as they like, no one is safe.
What is remarkable is that the Jewish people maintained this social responsibility even when scattered to remote corners of the earth. We lived in different cultures and spoke different languages. While the Jews of Europe suffered the horrors of the Crusades, the Jews in Spain lived in a golden age. When the Jews of Europe were being destroyed in the Holocaust, the Jews in America and England had unprecedented freedom. Yet they never stopped fighting for each other.
This week’s portion of Bechukotai teaches us two things: it teaches us that we should never give up hope; itself a remarkable idea that only makes sense if there is meaning and purpose; if we are created for something greater than ourselves.
And it teaches us that it’s not just about the Jewish people; it’s about every individual Jew. Every single Jew matters. It is if we stop caring for every Jew that we are really cursed, and it is because every Jew matters to every Jew that we are truly blessed, even in exile.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.