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Problem Finders vs. Problem Fixers (Bechukotai)

Originally published on May 14. 2014. 


Great orators understand the power of repetition. Mark Antony, for instance, gained the trust of the hostile masses gathered at Caesar’s funeral by addressing them, again and again, as his “friends.”  For Martin Luther King Jr., the refrains were “I have a dream” and “Let freedom reign!” The man at whose memorial King spoke –– Abraham Lincoln –– concluded the Gettysburg Address by promising that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But perhaps no leader knew how to emphasize a point better than Winston Churchill. In his first speech to parliament as British Prime Minister, Churchill, who took office at the start of WWII, guaranteed: “In one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be –– for without victory, there is no survival.” A month later, Churchill would restate his position even more forcefully:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

Richard Pasco as Mark Antony. The speech is famous for its first line — “Friends, Romans, countrymen” — and for Antony’s insistence throughout upon referring to those assembled as his “friends.” Notice, too, how many times he repeats the words “ambitious” and “honorable.” 

When used effectively, repetition is one of the best ways of ensuring that an audience remembers your message. Sometimes speakers choose to reiterate entire phrases. Other times it is sufficient simply to return to a single word, like Antony’s “friends,” Lincoln’s “people,” or Churchill’s “victory.” The Tanakh, להבדיל, often employs the latter method. As we’ve seen together several times in the past, our texts frequently communicate thematic meaning through “leading words:” words which appear several times in a passage in order to focus our attention on a particular concept or idea. And indeed, “leading words” lie at the heart of this week’s Parshah.

In last week’s Parshah, Behar, Hashem introduced a series of economic measures which were to set the tone of Israel’s national life: let the soil rest, let the workers rest; support the needy, take care of your employees; if, due to financial hardship, someone is forced to sell you the real estate which he inherited from his family, he retains the right to buy it back; if he must borrow money, you may not charge interest on the loan. These are the conditions according to which the Jewish people take possession of the land of Israel. In this week’s Parshah, Bechukosai, Hashem follows up with a simple proposition: follow these commandments and your nation will flourish; ignore them, and it will flounder.

The section which details the agricultural decline, the military defeat, and, ultimately, the protracted exile which Bnei Yisrael would face, ח”ו, if they failed to uphold these laws is called the תוכחה: the “rebuke.” It makes up one of the seven readings of this week’s Parshah and consists of less than forty pesukim. Yet five times within these pesukim –– twice at the beginning, twice at the end, and once in middle –– we find a root that appears nowhere else in the entire Torah. That root is “ג.ע.ל:”

  • [If you keep my commandments, then] I will place My dwelling in your midst, and My spirit will not reject [תגעל] you (Lev. 26:11).
  • [But] if you despise My statutes and reject [תגעל]My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant… (Lev. 26:15).
  • I will demolish your edifices and cut down your sun idols; I will make your corpses fall upon the corpses of your idols, and My spirit will reject [געלה] you (Lev. 26:30).
  • The land will be bereft of them [its inhabitants]… This will all be because they despised My ordinances and rejected [געלה] My statutes (Lev. 26:44).
  • But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject [געלתים]them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God (Lev. 26:45).

English editions of the Chumash generally render געל as “reject.” But געל, as a noun, means “nausea.” It implies that the people are not just rejecting God’s laws, but are recoiling from them, as one might from a noxious smell or an offensive taste. So “reject” is not an adequate translation of געל, because “reject” implies a certain degree of deliberation –– of intellectual, perhaps even ideological opposition. געל, by contrast, connotes a knee-jerk reaction –– an offhand dismissal. The imagery is of a response that is automatic, unthinking and immediate: we are rejecting before we even know what it is that we are rejecting.

As mentioned earlier, the word געל appears nowhere else in the Torah (that is, in the Chumash, i.e. the “five books of Moses”), aside from in the instances which we just cited. Yet the word does come up later in Tanach. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Judges we are introduced to man whose name is געל –– in English, Gaal. This Gaal enters, unsolicited, into the city of Shechem, and invites its inhabitants to a party at which he mocks and curses its king, Avimelech. Gaal inspires the people into rebellion, boasting confidently that “If all these people would give their support, then I would remove Avimelech” (Jud. 9:29). He then taunts Avimelech directly, sending him a challenge to “Increase your army, and come out [to fight me!]” (ibid 30). Unfortunately for Gaal, Avimelech does just that. Gaal is terrified. As Avimelech’s troops approach, Zevul, a prominent minister, turns to Gaal and asks: “Where is your mouth which used to say ‘Who is Avimelech, that we should serve him?’ Is this not the people that you despised? Go out now, and fight with them!” (ibid. 38). Left with little choice, Gaal goes to war. He is easily defeated.

A portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. MLK offers a healthy dose of criticism in this speech (all well deserved). Yet it was his ability to remain optimistic — to “dream” — which made him such an effective leader. “With our faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

In this tragic story, Gaal, the man, embodies the trait of געל for which he is named. He represents those who know how to identify problems but who aren’t interested in creating solutions –– those who like to complain, but not to cooperate. Not by accident does our Parshah, which describes the collapse of Jewish national life, frame its discussion around this concept. Cynicism corrodes the morale of society. To denigrate our leaders, to find faults with our legislation and to decry the shortcomings of our communal institutions is easy. But pessimism as a policy is unproductive. We must resist the instinct that tends to negativity –– “negativity for the sake of negativity.” Its results are as harmful as its allure is strong. Instead we must channel our criticism towards constructive ends. When we discover something that is broken, our immediate response cannot be “Who (or what) can I blame?” It should be, rather: “How can I fix it?”

Interestingly, געל is not the only “leading word” in our Parshah. Thirty times in the Parshiyos of Behar and Bechukosai (which, in non-leap years, are always read together) we find the root ג.א.ל, or “redemption” –– nineteen in Behar, and eleven in Bechukosai. This is by far the highest concentration of that root in all of the Torah, and it sets up a fascinating contrast. On the one hand, we have געל, “rejection;” on the other hand we have גאל, “redemption.” The first destroys society. The second saves it.

If געל indicates an inability or an unwillingness to see the good in others, in ourselves, in our leaders or in our God, then גאל suggests precisely the opposite –– it symbolizes the “redeeming features” of all these. In the context of our Parshah, גאל is used with reference to the redeeming of slaves or ancestral property. The case concerns a person who fell into such dire straits that he had to sell his field, perhaps even himself. Others might call him a lost cause. They might advise him to give up. They may tell his friends to admit defeat. Yet “redeemers,” unlike “rejecters,” are people who won’t accept that any situation is past hope. They recognize that circumstances are less than ideal, but they won’t let that tempt them into growing bitter. Instead they work doubly hard to pick themselves back up, or to buy back the freedom of somebody else –– as the case may be.

In the end, the גואל’s positive attitude is rewarded, and he manages to turn his situation around. He never pretends that everything is perfect –– he simply goes to work on the imperfections. That, our Parshah teaches us, is how we “heal a fractured world:” not by impulsively rejecting its flaws, but by patiently redeeming them.

Shabbat shalom!


4 Comments

  1. mendyw@yorku.ca says:

    Hey Alex, What an amazing dvar Torah! Thanks so much for sending! I just had a thought on the difference between gaal with an ayin (rejection and as you had associated with it, one who recognizes problems but does nothing to rectify them) and gaal (redeemer, and one who takes care of issues and follows through) The only difference between the two words is a single letter. Ayin, represents sight, which is fitting that it is in the word that denotes seeing without action, passivity. Conversely, the aleph represents connection of G-d and man, the upper and lower worlds, which is how one actively solves problems, by bringing Godliness into the world and becoming a redeemer of sorts. Let me know what you think! Thanks so much again and best regards, Mendy Weisbrod

  2. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thanks for posting this Alex, great Dvar Torah. Shabbat Shalom.

  3. […] The following is a short thought in honor of Shabbat, Sefirat HaOmer and Shavuot (for a more extensive essay on themes of Sefirat HaOmer / Shavuot, please stay tuned until next week!) For a D’var Torah on this week’s Parshah, Bechukotai, please click here. […]

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