Commentary for Bechukotai

19 May

In Jewish practice, we tend to emphasize the happy over the sad. We do not wish to mar Shabbat with sadness, so if a fast day falls on Shabbat, we move the fast to the Thursday before it or the Sunday after. We skip the sections of prayers that deal with sad subject matters not only on Shabbat and Yom Tov, but in the afternoon preceding them and the whole day following them as well. When we sit Shiva, we count the day of the funeral as the first full day, even though Shiva only begins after the burial, and we cut the seventh day of Shiva short, only observing it until the morning service. While we do not shave during the Counting of the Omer until Lag B’Omer because it is a period of semi-mourning, some people have the custom that we can override this restriction for any happy occasion, such as Israeli Independence Day or even something as simple preparations for Shabbat. While we do break a glass at weddings to commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple, we do not let the sadness of the moment overpower the day’s festivities.

The only place where the sad seems to receive more emphasis than the happy is in Torah, Haftarah, and Megillah reading. In the Haftarah and Megillahs, the standard way to emphasize sadness is by switching from the standard Haftarah cantillation to the cantillation from Lamentations. While the Lamentations cantillation is used for one verse in the Torah (Deut. 1:12, in which Moses laments his frustration with the Israelites for their constant quarrelsomeness and bickering), sections prophesying the destruction of the Jewish People for not following God’s laws are read extra quickly and in a quiet, subdued voice. This unique practice, combined with their extreme length (because we don’t end an aliyah on a sad note), seems to emphasize them over other “normal” sections of the Torah that might be more happy.

While these factors serve to call extra attention to these unsettling sections of the Torah, they also serve to call attention to Judaism’s overarching desire for a life of happiness in partnership with God. This week’s parshah contains one of these two sections of rebuke, and in this long section of warnings and prophecies of doom, there is one verse of hope (Lev. 26:42) in which God promises to remember the covenant he made with our forefathers, which is read in a standard Torah reading voice, making it stand out from the subdued, quickly-read verses around it. In this verse Jacob’s name is spelled with an extra letter, vav. Though it does not change the pronunciation or meaning of Jacob’s name, it adds an extra meaning to the overall message.

This instance is the only time in the Torah that Jacob’s name is spelled this way, and is just one of five times in the entire Bible. Conversely, the name of the prophet Elijah, whose return will herald the coming of the Messiah and the final redemption of the Jewish People, is normally spelled with a vav, but is spelled without one in just five places in the Bible. We learn from Proverbs 6:1 that a deal is valid if it is sealed with a handshake, and the Maharal of Prague notes that the letter vav, taken from Elijah’s name and added to Jacob’s five times, is long and narrow like a finger. Thus these five “fingers” represent a handshake; a sworn promise between a Elijah, a prophet of God, and Jacob, whose name is often used as a stand-in for all of the Jewish People, that God will always remember the covenant with our forefathers.

This might seem like we are digging very deep and stretching things to find an answer to our question, but this, too, is part of God’s message. No matter how bad things get, even if they are as bad as the terrible visions of doom in this week’s parshah, repentance and redemption will always be possible.

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