One of the hardest passages to read in the Torah is the Tochechah (“Rebuke”), the series of blessings and curses that comes in two versions – one near the end of the Book of Vayikra and one in this week’s portion.
As a Ba’al K’ri’ah I shuddered inwardly every time I had to read this section. My problem was that, unlike most of my congregation, I understood every word of the Hebrew. I recognised so many of the horrific predictions in the passage in the events of the Holocaust.
But I always found it difficult to reconcile the catastrophes with the introductory words (Deut. 28:15) which warn us that all this is punishment for sin.
Modern thinkers such as Eliezer Berkovits say it is obscene to associate suffering with sin to the extent of somehow blaming the martyrs of the Holocaust for their own fate.
I am well aware that other thinkers try to pinpoint where European Jewry went wrong, but who reaped the worst whirlwind? Not the assimilationists but the intensely Jewish community of Poland, who account for over half of the six million martyrs.
There are some who try to bring a modicum of comfort by means of the doctrine of vicarious atonement – i.e. the righteous suffer for the sins of the generation. But nothing takes the pain away or succeeds in explaining the mystery.
The most we can do, then, as some philosophers suggest, is to say that it is all too hard and we should not look for explanations but only responses. We do not know why it all happened, but we can and must respond by holding fast to our Jewishness and refusing to give the enemy the last laugh.
Is the difficulty in finding an explanation what is meant when the Tochechah says that “The Lord will smite you with… astonishment of the heart” (Deut. 28:28)? (The Hebrew tim’hon levav is rendered by some as “confusion of the mind” and by others as “dismay”).