24 May BECHUKOSAI – THE FIGHTER STILL REMAINS ARE YOU STILL THE CHOSEN PEOPLE?
Charlie Boswell was a great athlete who became blind during World War II while rescuing his friend from a tank that was under fire. When he returned to this country after the War, he decided to take up a sport that he had never tried as yet—golf. Years of Practice and determination led him to win the honor of National Blind Golf Champion no less than 13 times. One of his heroes was the great golfer Ben Hogan, so it truly was an honor for Charlie to win the Ben Hogan Award in 1958.
Upon meeting Hogan, Charlie was awestruck and told the legendary golfer that his greatest wish was to have one round of golf with the great Ben Hogan.
Hogan was duly honored, after all, he knew Charlie as the great blind player that he was, and truly admired his skills.
But suddenly Boswell blurted out an unexpected challenge. “Would you like to play for money, Mr. Hogan?”
“Charlie, you know I can’t play you for money, it wouldn’t be fair!” said Mr. Hogan.
Boswell did not flinch. Instead he upped the ante. “Aw, come on, $1,000 per hole!”
“I can’t. What would people think of me, taking advantage of you and your circumstance,” replied the golfer who indeed was able to see.
“Chicken, Mr. Hogan?”
“Okay,” blurted a frustrated Hogan, “I’ll play. But I warn you, I am going to play my best!”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else,” said the confident Boswell.
“You’re on Charlie. I’ll tell you what. You name the time and the place!”
A very self-assured Boswell responded: “Fine. 10 o’clock . . . tonight!”
A STRANGE JUXTAPOSITION
In the portion of Bechkosei, G-d communicates to the Jewish people the idyllic and extraordinary blessings that await them if they live up to their covenant with G-d. This is followed by the warning that if the Jewish people fail to fulfill their role in our world as the Divine ambassadors, they will become the victims of horrendous punishments, curses and losses described in frightening detail.
Immediately following this section, known as the “Tochacha” (rebuke, chastisement), the Torah begins a totally new subject—the laws of “erchin,” which means evaluation. These laws specify how a person might donate his or her own value or the value of another human being to the Holy Temple. The Torah specifies the exact sum one must contribute if he or she makes such a pledge. The sum is not based on the individual’s strength or character, but rather it is a generic value for each gender and each age. For example, the “erech,” or standard value, of a Jewish male between the ages of 20 and 60 is fifty silver shekel (a silver currency weighing around 9000 grams of silver). It doesn’t make a difference whether the individual whose worth was pledged was a Neurosurgeon, or a street-sweeper, the amount donated is dependent only on age and gender. If I pledged to contribute the value of a five-year-old boy, I need to contribute 20 silver shekel (a silver currency weighing around 360 grams) to the Temple. If I pledge to contribute the value of a one year old boy, I need to pay to the Temple five silver shekel. (There is an entire Tractate in the Talmud, Erchin, devoted to this topic.)
[Obviously, these numbers do not reflect the true value of a human being. A person is priceless. Rather, these are symbolic numbers the Torah attaches to different genders and different ages representing certain generic features if this gender or age group. The details of this are beyond the scope of this article.]
The order in the Hebrew Bible is meticulous. What is the connection between the tochacha, the stern and harsh chastisement, and the laws of evaluation, discussing the “value” of every single human being, man, woman and child?
THE POWER OF CHARITY
I will present two answers, one is a numerical and moral; the other is psychological.
The Baal Haturim explains as follows. The Portion of erchin contains evaluations in this order: 50 shekel, 30 shekel, 20 shekel, 10 shekel, 5 shekel, 3 shekel, 15 shekel, and 10 shekel—for various age and gender groups. The total of all distinct categories comes out to be 143 shekel. This number exactly matches the sum of the curses in the Torah—45 in this week’s portion, Bechkosai, and 98 in the portion of Ki Savo in the book of Deuteronomy. The Torah is, in effect, saying that the antidote for the tochacha is the mitzvah of erchin, the mitzvah of charity. The 143 shekels of contributions cancel out the 143 chastisements.
STILL THE CHOSEN PEOPLE?
The second explanation, presented by the Kotzker Rebbe, is this.
One of the greatest gifts of the Jewish people was that they did not allow the humiliation and persecution they endured by mighty nations to define their inner identity, dignity and destiny. Like fearless lions, they left Auschwitz and the next day they went to rebuild Jerusalem.
We know of many a people or culture who endured savage and suffering, and as a result, they could never rehabilitate themselves emotionally. They remained eternal victims of their oppressors. And even after they were set free, it was merely an external freedom, but their inner sense of identity and liberty has been obliterated.
Where did the Jewish people glean the strength to emerge from every disaster with the courage and confidence to rebuild and prosper? From the order in this week’s portion! After the Torah enumerates the suffering the Jews might experience from the nations around them, it goes right on to discuss the value of every single human being. No matter what happens to you, the Torah is intimating, you have value as an individual, and as part of a nation. And your value can contribute to the Holy Temple, to the revealing of the Divine presence in the world.
After the Nazis invaded the small village of Klausenberg, Romania, they began to celebrate the defeat of the Jews in their usual sadistic fashion. They gathered the Jews into a circle in the center of town, and then paraded their Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusial Yehuda Halberstam (1905-1994), into the center.
The Klausenberger Rebbe was later taken to Aushwitz, where his wife and 11 children perished. He survived the war and came to America, where he remarried, had more children, and built a grand Chassidic movement. He also built the beautiful Laniodo hospital in Netanya, Israel.
The SS guards began taunting and teasing the Klausenberger Rebbe, pulling his beard and pushing him around. The vile soldiers trained their guns on him as the commander began to speak. “Tell us Rabbi,” sneered the officer, “do you really believe that you are the Chosen People?”
The soldiers guarding the crowd howled in laughter. But the Rebbe did not. In a serene voice, he answered loud and clear, “Most certainly.”
The officer became enraged. He lifted his rifle above his head and sent it crashing on the head of the Rebbe. The Rebbe fell to the ground. There was rage in the officer’s voice. “Do you still think you are the Chosen People?” he yelled.
Once again, the Rebbe nodded his head and said, “yes, we are.” The officer became infuriated. He kicked the rebbe in the chin and repeated. “You stupid Jew, you lie here on the ground, beaten and humiliated, in a puddle of blood. What makes you think that you are the Chosen People?”
With his mouth gushing blood, the Rebbe replied. “As long as we are not the ones kicking, beating and murdering innocent people, we our the chosen people.”
Many of us have experienced loss, abuse, and grief in our lives. There are individuals who from a very young age have been given the message that they are worthless and that their lives amount to nothing. For years they struggle to regain the inner confidence to create a great life for themselves.
Comes the Torah and teaches us, that after you experienced turbulence in your life, after you endued a “tochachah,” make sure that you do not allow those experiences and messages to make you doubt your value. You may have been challenged, but let the fighter in you still remain.
It also works the other way around.
The true value and dignity of a person emerges in moments of pain and despair. The real quality of people, their depth and majesty emerge after a “tochacha,” after a painful experience.
When Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rav (d. 1979), visited Israel, a Hungarian Jew came and asked him for a blessing before his departure back to the US. This Jew expressed the fear that after the Satmar Rav returned to America, there would be no one worthy to ask for a blessing. His Rebbe told him: “Go to any Jew that has a number tattooed on his arm and ask him for a blessing. When such a person is available, you do not need me to give you a blessing.”