A curse. The very words send shivers down one’s spine. Chazal say, “Let not the curse of even a simple person be light in your eyes” (Megillah 15a). Words have tremendous power and they must be feared. Surely, then, if a tzaddik utters a klalah, it is something to be petrified about. Of course, tzaddikim are always very careful with their words, but there were times that necessitated a curse and it brought calamity to those on the receiving end. Were we to hear that someone was cursed by an adam gadol, we could well imagine what the ramifications were for that person.
The great gaon and tzaddik Rav Shneur Zalman of Lublin, the Toras Chesed, was once sitting and learning, deeply immersed in a sugya. Right outside of his window was a group of rambunctious youngsters running wild and making a commotion that disturbed his learning. He got up, opened the door, and called one of the boys over.
“What is your name?” asked the tzaddik.
“Moishele,” came the answer.
“Do you know the Mishnah that says, ‘Beware of the glowing coal (of tzaddikim), lest you be burned, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion’ (Avos 2:15)?”
Just at that moment, the child was horrified to see a scorpion marching straight towards him. The tzaddik immediately stepped on the scorpion’s head and killed it. Then he turned to the child and said gently, “You see, Moishele, you have to be very careful.” It was a lesson the child would never forget.
If one must be so fearful of the words of a tzaddik, how much more so a curse that comes straight from Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The world is still suffering to this day from the klalah that Hashem gave to Adam and Chava for the sin of the Eitz Hadaas, and it will be this way till the coming of Moshiach. How fearful, then, do we have to be of this week’s sedrah, which contains the Tochacha, a series of klalos from Hakadosh Boruch Hu to those who don’t observe His commandments properly. Indeed, this fear is reflected by the fact that no one wants the aliyah of the Tochacha and it is read quickly and in a lower tone.
In one of his drashos, the famed Yerushalmi maggid, Rav Sholom Schwadron, posed a question: How can it be that in the Torah, there are two parshiyos full of klalos, 49 in Parshas Bechukosai and double that number in Parshas Ki Savo, a portent of horrifying events for our future? And yet, when it comes to the brachos, there are just nine pesukim in Bechukosai, while in Ki Savo a mere 10 pesukim countering 50 full of curses.
Rav Sholom commented that when he asks this question in his drashos, he notices the audience nodding along in agreement, as if they were also bothered by this but afraid to ask. Before we hear Rav Sholom’s answer, let us first understand the true purpose of the klalos, as explained by Rav Elya Lopian.
We learn in Parshas Nitzavim: “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d: the heads of your tribes… All the men of Yisroel” (Devorim 29:9). Rashi explains: Why is this said right after the Tochacha of Ki Savo? For when the Yidden heard the 98 curses in addition to the 49 in Bechukosai, their faces turned pale and they said, “Who could withstand all these? So Moshe began to appease them, saying, ‘You are standing firmly today, you have angered Hashem many times, but He has not destroyed you. And you see that you continue to exist before him.’”
Was Moshe Rabbeinu downplaying the severity of the klalos? We know that someone who says that Hashem is yielding deserves to yield his own life (Bava Kama 50a). If the Tochacha wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, then why was it said? And if it is, then how was Moshe comforting them?
Rav Elya Lopian explains that Hashem’s punishments are not meant as vengeance for our wrongdoing. Rather, yissurim, afflictions, share a common root with the word mussar, discipline, for through yissurim, a person becomes humbled, his heart broken, and he is ready to do teshuvah. As it says, “The sacrifices that Hashem desires are a spirit that is broken, a heart broken and humbled, Elokim, You will not despise” (Tehillim 51:19).
The Vilna Gaon compares this to one who sows a field. He must plow it, turning over and softening every lump of earth, and only then can he sow. For the seed cannot take root in hard earth, nor can the land absorb water properly. It is the same with a person’s heart. The hardships are the plow that softens it so that one may absorb the lessons of teshuvah and return to Hashem.
This is what Moshe Rabbeinu was telling the Yidden. When they heard the klalos and were petrified of them, worried that they will be afflicted by them and will not be able to survive, Moshe told them, “It’s good that you are afraid, for the sole purpose of the curses is to break the heart and guide it to teshuvah. If so, they have already accomplished their goal to soften your hearts, to make them fit to sow righteousness, and in this way Hashem can shower you with blessing.”
The fact that in our day we are experiencing “atem nitzavim hayom, our nation still stands,” is an incredible miracle. Despite all of the hardships, the exiles, and the persecutions throughout thousands of years, we still maintain our distinct identity as the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. And in this day and age, when society is heading over a cliff, we are flourishing in building mosdos haTorah. One of the secrets of our survival is the fear of the Tochacha. The fear of Hashem and the repercussions of disobeying Him have kept us in line throughout all of these years. And those who unfortunately did not maintain this fear fell by the wayside.
Have you ever seen a vine that is freshly planted? The area all around it is plowed up earth, while the actual vine takes up only a little bit of space. This is necessary so that the plant can absorbs as much rainwater and as many nutrients from the ground as possible. It is the same with the brachos and the klalos. In order for Hashem to send us the fruits of brocha, our hearts have to be properly softened. Man’s heart can be very stubborn and hard, and it takes a lot of Tochacha to properly soften it to bring brocha. This is why there are more klalos than brachos. But essentially, they are meant to bring us the fruits of Hashem’s blessings, and so, in reality, they are part of the blessing itself.
This can also explain why Chazal established the reading of Parshas Bechukosai before Shavuos (see Megillah 31b), for before our personal Kabbolas HaTorah, in order to properly imbibe the holy lessons of the Torah, our hearts must first be softened by the fear brought about by the Tochacha.
Rav Sholom Schwadron answers the original question from a different angle. The assumption that the klalos outnumber the brachos is only true if one hasn’t experienced the beginning of the parsha, “Im bechukosai teileichu… If you will follow My decrees…that you will toil in Torah” (Rashi). But if the beginning of the blessings start with ameilus in Torah, then the nine pesukim of brocha that follow are like the nine zeroes added to the one, comprising a stupendous number.
Whoever has tasted life from a perspective of serving Hashem and walking in His ways knows that even the few pesukim magnify the blessings to the extent that we have everything and even more than we can imagine. “If you have acquired this (Torah), then you have everything” (Nedorim 41a), but if ruchniyus is not the mainstay of one’s life and he seeks to satisfy his soul with olam hazeh, then he indeed has a question. For him, nine pesukim of blessings are not enough. Nor are 90. For he can never be satisfied.
We can also add that “a measure of divine goodness is 500 times greater than that of evil dispensation” (Sotah 11a, Tosafos). If so, the few pesukim of brocha are significantly greater than the many pesukim of klalah. Nor can we begin to fathom the immense pleasure we will derive from every word of Torah in the future, when we will be living in a spiritual world. Well known is what the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh says (Devorim 26:11), that if people would feel the true sweetness and flavor of the Torah, they would become crazed and aroused to pursue it, and an entire world of silver and gold would not have any value in their eyes, because the Torah encompasses all of the good in the world.
The Chofetz Chaim wondered: How can it be that most people don’t pursue the Torah with great zeal, when the pesukim in Tanach say that all of olam hazeh cannot compare to the value of one word of Torah? He explained with a moshol. In the olden days, the peasants of the little villages dealt with small denominations of money. They never saw bills worth more than a ruble each. So, if one gave them a bill worth 25 or 50 rubles, they were very hesitant to accept it, because they could not believe that one piece of paper was worth 50 papers of their single rubles.
In the city, it was common to deal with these larger bills and they were easily accepted. However, if somebody owned a government bond worth thousands of rubles, he could not buy anything with it in a store. He had to exchange it in the local bank. Someone who possessed a bond worth hundreds of thousands of rubles had to travel to the capital city to exchange it in the national bank. But in order to exchange a government bond worth millions of rubles, even the national bank did not suffice. That could only be cashed in at the royal department of the treasury.
The higher the value of the document, the fewer the people who recognize its value. If so, says the Chofetz Chaim, it is no wonder that there aren’t more people motivated to vigorously pursue the Torah. For we are like the peasants who are occupied with the small denominations and don’t recognize currency of higher value. Even the malachim do not recognize the full value of Torah, so how can we? But we have to believe the words of the Torah about how precious it is.
Chazal say (Brachos 34b), “All of the nevi’im said their prophecy about the good that we will experience in the times of Moshiach, but about Olam Haba, ‘people have never heard, never observed, no eye has ever seen’ (Yeshaya 64:3).” Only then will we fully realize that the overwhelming Tochacha was far outnumbered by the immense blessings that we will enjoy. We will clearly recognize that it was merely the plowing that led to an immeasurable bounty.