No Food, No Torah; No Torah, No Food

The curses in Bechukotai were actualized during the Holocaust.

Commentary on Parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34

The first half of this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, begins with 13 blessings (Leviticus 26:3-13), continues with 30 curses that will occur if we don’t follow God’s commandments (Leviticus 26:14-41), and ends with a final blessing of consolation from God (Leviticus 26:42-45). God basically says that even though there will be destruction, I will still be with you in the darkness. This is a strange kind of consolation in light of the violence of the curses that precede it.

The curses are about emptiness and hunger — hunger for peace, rest, land, and food. One of them focuses on physical hunger: “When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; they shall dole out your bread by weight, and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied” (Leviticus 26:26). This verse implies that even when we eat, we will still feel the gnawing hunger pangs we get on Yom Kippur.

Perhaps this verse foreshadows the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. In the camps there was constant hunger. Instead of baking bread in the ovens, as our verse suggests, women were themselves sent into ovens.

Yaffa Eliach tells the following story about survivor Tula Friedman:

A waiter came to the table with a basket of bread. Tula closed her eyes and inhaled the aroma of the freshly baked bread. She passed the basket to me without taking any…. She said, “You know, in camp I used to dream that one day I would marry a baker, and in our house there would always be an abundance of bread.”

“For this basket of bread,” another woman across the table said, “you could buy in camp all the jewelry you see at this bar mitzvah. Once in Bergen-Belsen, I exchanged a diamond ring for a thin slice of white bread.”

The bread on the table was still untouched. The waiter came again to the table. “Ladies, I see that you are not hungry today.”

“Not today,” replied Tula, “and not ever again.”

The waiter was about to remove the bread. “Leave it on the table,” said another woman. “There is nothing more reassuring in this world than having a basket of freshly baked bread on the table in front of you.”  (The Five Books of Miriam, Ellen Frankel, Grosset/Putnam Books, New York, 1996, p.192.)

In the camps the days were filled with curses, similar to those in this week’s Torah portion. The Talmudic phrase Ein kemach, ein Torah; ein Torah, ein kemach — “If there is no food, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no food” — has poignancy in the light of the Holocaust.

In other words, if there is no food in our stomachs or if we don’t have the physical or emotional essentials for life, then it is impossible for us to absorb the words of Torah or experience spirituality. And if we do not have spirituality in our lives, then we are missing the essential nutrition for our souls. After Auschwitz, many people turned away from God because they had not been able to feel God’s Presence in the darkness.

Perhaps that is why the consolation blessing is so important:

Yet even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them, for I the Eternal am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I the Eternal. (Leviticus 26: 44-45)

When we are in emotional or physical darkness, when it seems as if our world is falling apart and we cannot sense God’s Presence, the consolation verse sustains us. God is there in the darkness, perhaps silent but waiting. Even when we feel cursed, the blessing of the Eternal is assured. When we are ready, we will sense God’s Presence again.

Reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.


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