“If you walk contrary with Me”

The Tochechah section in Leviticus 26 contains several repeated expressions, including, “If you walk contrary (bekeri) with Me.” According to an interpretation cited by Rashi, this refers to the sin of interpreting every event in life as an accident (mikreh). When something bad happens, it is often easy to write it off as an accident. This can minimize the impact of such an event, disregarding its greater implications for one’s life.

When one thinks of the last fifty or one hundred years, it is clear that this problem still exists in modern times. During this period, highly significant events occurred and various processes unfolded that greatly influenced the world and its inhabitants. Regarding each one of these events and processes, it is important to determine the lesson to take away from it. What can we learn from this? What is the conclusion to be drawn from it, and what should be changed as a result? These questions are relevant whether we are speaking about the Holocaust, about the establishment of the State of Israel, or about assimilation, which, although it may not seem as dramatic as the other events, is no less significant for the Jewish people in the long run.

Today, assimilation has reached proportions the likes of which we have not seen in over two thousand years. The majority of the Jewish people has no interest in Judaism. Not since the Hellenistic period, perhaps, have we lived in a time when to be a Jew is a matter of nationality, race, family, and other factors, but not a matter of religion. Statistics today show that for every second that goes by, there is approximately one less Jew in the world; not because he is killed, but because he assimilates among the non-Jews.

This situation, which pertains not just to anomalous individuals but to the entire community, is a tremendous change for us, and we have already forgotten how to deal with such a problem. We know how to deal with one apostate or what to do in the case of a minor misfortune; but how do we cope with the kind of traumatic phenomenon that affects an entire people? Assimilation today is an entirely different kind of problem from what we have dealt with in the past; it is a crisis like no other.

This situation is an example of what Parshat Bechukotai calls “If you walk contrary with Me”; it is clear that we have learned nothing from our history. To be sure, there are certainly individuals who have learned from past events. Those who abandoned their faith after the Holocaust had suffered through an incredible horror, and essentially said, “Master of the Universe, we cannot carry on anymore; we cannot say that our suffering was simply bad luck. If You exist, You are not watching; and if You are watching, then such a thing would not have happened.” These people did not “walk contrary”; they did not attribute world events to chance. The events in our lives have significance, and if they indeed have significance, one cannot remain complacent in response to them; one must draw conclusions from them. But the people as a whole did not respond like these individuals did; instead, they learned nothing at all.

There are those who see a bird flying and chirping and are able to understand what the bird is saying. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that after reaching the Land of Israel, he learned why a heap of straw lies in the street lengthwise and not widthwise. Granted, these are arcane matters. But in our case, we are not speaking here about a heap of straw in the street or about hearing a bird chirping. We are talking about catastrophes, events that have shocked the whole world. Yet no response, no conclusion, and no upshot has been drawn from all of this – nothing at all. Everyone carries on as before.

Blaming others

When, occasionally, someone does attempt to infer some lesson, the conclusion drawn is generally that someone else is to blame. It is in our nature to look around and search for a guilty party, to determine on whom to pin the blame. Blaming others is often a way of saying that everything that happened proves that one’s approach was correct, and it was this other person who caused all the world’s problems. Thus, nowadays there are Jews whose main principle of faith is that Zionism brought about the Holocaust. On all the other principles they are willing to compromise, but not on this one.

Conversely, when something good happens, it is the common practice of many people to take credit for it. Others were useful by not getting in the way, or at best they may have helped a bit, but I was the one who saved the day, whether by reciting psalms or by the force of my gun.

One way or another, everything that happens, whether good or bad, makes no impact and effects no change. This is the precise definition of “If you walk contrary with Me.”

The parshah describes the horrifying consequences of this kind of attitude toward G‑d:

If you walk contrary with Me and will not obey Me, I will go on smiting you…And I will send the beast of the field among you, which will rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number, and your ways will become desolate. And if in spite of these things you will not be corrected unto Me, but walk contrary with Me…I in turn will smite you sevenfold for your sins. And I will bring upon you an avenging sword…When I break your staff of bread, ten women will bake your bread in one oven… and you will eat and not be satisfied…And you will eat the flesh of your sons.1

All this because “you walk contrary with Me.2

There is a kind of mechanism in man whereby even when he is hit with one affliction after another, he remains unmoved. When retribution comes, everyone immediately looks at his neighbor instead of deep within himself and, as a result, nothing changes. So long as one knows who caused all these afflictions, it is easy to live with all the troubles. In spite of all the admonishment, everything remains as it was before.

One who does not walk contrary is one who attaches meaning, importance, and significance to everything that happens around him. But learning a moral lesson regarding oneself and not automatically looking to someone else is very uncommon.

During the Sinai Campaign, the previous Belzer Rebbe, who was well known for his holiness and piety, stood for two full days in prayer. He was not suspected of being a Zionist, nor did he suddenly become one. But this was a time of great crisis in the world, and there are times when a person changes his mind in response to a crisis, even if not by dramatic declarations.

The hope is that, beyond a certain point, a person can no longer truly claim that a momentous event was a chance occurrence, and he will then understand that he requires rectification and that he must examine his deeds.

“We and our fathers have sinned”

Toward the end of the Tochechah, there is another matter that is surprising in several respects: “They will then confess their sins and the sins of their fathers, in that they were unfaithful to me and walked contrary with me.”3 The confession is not only for sins but also for “walking contrary with G‑d” – that is, for the imperviousness that does not allow one to see things correctly. But what is the meaning of “they will then confess their sins and the sins of their fathers”? Every time we recite the Viduy and confess our sins, we use this very formula: “But we and our fathers have sinned,” and perhaps for this very reason we no longer notice how odd it is. It makes perfect sense to confess one’s own sins, with which one is well acquainted. I have sinned, gone astray, transgressed. But what right do I have to drag my father and grandfather into a confession of these sins?

It is only natural for a person to automatically justify the practices to which he has grown accustomed. People often defend their dubious practices by claiming, “This is how I was brought up, this is my style, this is my custom.” Hence, when one wants to make a real confession, this confession cannot suffice with one’s own problems. One cannot merely atone for one’s own sins within one’s own sphere, claiming that these are the only things that fall within one’s sphere of responsibility and within the sphere of one’s teshuvah. Rather, one should consider that perhaps “we and our fathers have sinned.” He should be willing to examine not only his own personal sins but also the sins of his fathers. Perhaps an error was made that encompasses more than what one did yesterday afternoon. One may have to go back five years, ten years, twenty years – perhaps there is an error that has persisted for generations.

Hence, the Torah says, “Those of you who survive will deteriorate because of their iniquity in the lands of your enemies, and they will deteriorate also because of the iniquities of their fathers. They will then confess their sins and the sins of their fathers”4 – because that is part of the reckoning. True soul searching must include not only the personal picture but the broader picture.

Whenever any major event happens, one must always ask: What does this mean? What does it imply? What are its implications? Such a comprehensive examination is always challenging for everyone involved, but it must be done; for if it is not comprehensive, the whole examination loses its significance.


Not every sin is specified in the parshah, but there is one expression that appears twice, in two different but parallel contexts. At the beginning of the parshah, the Torah says, “I will set My presence among you, and I will not abhor you,”5 and a few verses later, at the beginning of the Tochechah, it says, “If you reject My statutes and abhor My laws, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant;”6 and the expression recurs repeatedly.

Generally, when discussing the performance of the mitzvot, one speaks of the practical side: what one must do and what one must not do, and how one must act in regard to laws, statutes, commandments, or covenants. Here, however, the expression concerns a different aspect of the mitzvot. Were they abhorrent or loathsome to you? This is an expression that does not relate to one’s actions. Abhorrence pertains to a sphere that is outside and beyond the performance itself. It asks: In what manner did you perform the mitzvot? What did you feel toward them? With what emotion did you perform them?

Again, the issue here is not the actions one has taken that led to a transgression. The question of abhorrence relates to a different aspect. The process that leads to “you abhor My laws” begins with indifference. Indifference is soon followed by loathing, a feeling that the mitzvot are repulsive. Thus, a person can continue doing all that is required of him in practice, and yet loathe and abhor it. He carries out all the orders, but does not care at all about them; in fact, they disgust him.

On the verse, “because you did not serve G‑d your Lord with joy and with gladness over the abundance of all things,”7 it is said in the name of the Ari8 that this is the root of, and reason for, all the punishments of the Tochechah. It is not because “you did not serve G‑d your L‑rd” but because “you did not serve with joy.” Because you do not serve G‑d with joy, you suffer the whole, long Tochechah, ninety-eight curses in all. The reason for this is that what lies beneath deeds that are not performed with joy is “you reject My statutes and abhor My laws.” It may seem unnecessary to perform a mitzva joyfully. Is it not enough to perform the laws in comprehensive detail? Must we be happy about it as well? The Torah’s answer is yes – we must serve with joy.

In previous generations, when people would hear the recitation of the Tochechah in the synagogue – “If you walk contrary with Me”; “If you reject and abhor” – they would tremble in fear. In order to deflect self-scrutiny, many people would rationalize that the Tochechah applies only to the Torah reader, and not to them. This kind of thinking is vulgar and improper, not to mention ignorant. Nevertheless, it reflects an attitude of hearing the words of the Torah and experiencing a legitimate reaction – quivering with fear, feeling that the punishment described in the Tochechah may fall on him at any moment.

Nowadays, when the Tochechah is read in the synagogue, if the reader misses a cantillation mark or a vowel point, the congregants will stop him and tell him to repeat the verse with the proper pronunciation. The truth is that, in doing this, the congregants are following halachah. Why should this parshah be any different from all the other parashot in the Torah? Nevertheless, it should alarm us that the Tochechah, which used to inspire such terror, has been reduced to a zakef katan or a mappik heh.

Similarly, many people use the recitation of Shema simply as an opportunity to emphatically draw out the pronunciation of the letter zayin in the words “lemaan tizkeru;”9 everything else stated in the Shema is irrelevant. “You shall love G‑d your L‑rd”10 is unimportant; but to draw out the zayin – that is of real substance.

These examples show that many seemingly pious people do not actually care about the mitzvot; there is only contempt and abhorrence toward them.

“Why is the land destroyed?”

In his introduction to Tiferet Yisrael, the Maharal writes at great length on the verse, “Why is the land destroyed…Because they have forsaken My Torah.”11 The Talmud explains that “they have forsaken My Torah” means “they did not first recite the blessing for the Torah.”12

At first glance, the Talmud’s explanation seems difficult to understand. For sins like bloodshed, forbidden sexual relationships, and idolatry, G‑d does not react so harshly. They are certainly considered serious sins, but they are not the sins for which the land was destroyed and the Temple razed. G‑d surely does not react this harshly to other offenses of similar insignificance. So why is the sin of neglecting the blessing for the Torah treated with such severity?

The Maharal answers that the people who “did not first recite the blessing for the Torah” were connected to the Torah without G‑d’s involvement. They followed all the mitzvot, but did not appreciate the very root of the matter. G‑d was irrelevant to them, and it was because of this attitude that the land was destroyed.

The Midrash states that “G‑d overlooked idolatry, forbidden sexual relationships, and bloodshed, but did not overlook contempt for the Torah.”13 It is not that G‑d forgave these major sins, only that these sins can always be rectified in this world or the next through teshuvah, whether it is on one’s deathbed or even after his death. But regarding the sin of contempt for the Torah there apparently is no atonement.

The Talmud describes the Shechinah’s departure from the Sanctuary, detailing its movement from station to station, corresponding to its exile: From the Ark-cover to the cherub, from the first cherub to the second cherub, from the second cherub to the threshold of the Holy of Holies, and from there to the courtyard and then to the Altar, and so forth, until “it ascended and abode in its place.”14 But why should we care that the Shechinah has departed? Why does it matter precisely where G‑d dwells? If He wants to live on the second floor, let Him live on the second floor; what does that have to do with me? This is the root of the problem: Man does not care about G‑d, and so he is left only with the external aspect of everything.

The Tochechah comes in response to this attitude of contempt and abhorrence – and not necessarily because of the performance. G‑d promises that if we follow His laws, He will look at us, “and I will not abhor you.”15

It could have been that when a person behaved in a certain way, he would simply make G‑d feel nauseous; G‑d would look at him and feel like vomiting. G‑d, therefore, promises: “I will not abhor you.” Despite all the sins, “I will not reject them or abhor them.”16