Parashat B'hukotai

No Food, No Torah; No Torah, No Food

The curses in B'hukotai were actualized during the Holocaust; when we are ready, we can seek comfort in God's blessing of consolation that follows the curses.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.

The first half of this week's Torah portion, B'hukotai, 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 Shoah (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 parashah. 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 Shoah.

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Rabbi Marcia Plumb writes about and teaches a national adult education curriculum in London, England, for the progressive movements in the U.K. She also teaches spirituality at Leo Baeck College, the European progressive rabbinical school.