The most important relationship

There are two Rebukes in the Torah. The first one, at the end of the book of Leviticus, is read on the penultimate Sabbath before the holiday of Shavuot. It is limited in scope and structured in groups of seven. There are seven levels of transgression listed at the beginning, and God repeats variations on the phrase, "if you shall be contrary, I will torment you sevenfold for all of your sins," seven times.

That Rebuke concludes with a prophecy of redemption. "I will remember the covenant of your forefathers…"

The one in Deuteronomy, however, begins with one general sin: "And if you do not listen to the voice of the Lord your God to guard and to do the commandments and rules which I command you this day…" As the frightening descriptions of what will befall the people should they reject the Torah continue, there is no further reference to Israel sinning or to a sevenfold punishment as retribution for those sins. It is simply a chaotic mix of calamity after calamity. There is disease, there is war, there is famine and drought. On and on it goes, and when we get to the end of it, there is no optimistic final note. "God will return you to Egypt and you will be sold as slaves there to your enemies yet no one will purchase you."

Why these differences from the first Rebuke? And how is this an appropriate preparation for Rosh Hashanah?

Immediately prior to the Rebuke, the Israelites are commanded to make a pilgrimage to the area of Shechem where the twin Mountains of Gerizim and Eval are located. Half of the tribes are to ascend Mount Gerizim and the other half are to ascend Mount Eval. The Levites are then to recite the blessings and the curses resulting from observance or nonobservance of the Torah which the people are to affirm.

Now, the Israelites entered the land from the East and were quite some distance from Shechem. There are plenty of locations where two adjacent mountains could serve the purpose much closer to where the nation was camped. Why make them make the journey into the heartland for this ceremony when they will need to return to the Jordan Valley the very same day?

The answer to all of these questions lies in the three main relationships that every Jew must have: 1. To God. 2. To the Land of Israel. 3. To each other – the Jewish nation. When one or more of these relationships are lacking, bad things happen. But not all bad things are created equal, and not all of these relationships are of equal influence on the others.

Many commentaries view the two Rebukes as referring to the two destructions of Jerusalem and the Temple. Our rabbis tell us that because the sins of the first Temple period were known explicitly, their punishment was made explicit and finite. That exile lasted only 70 years, similar to the first Rebuke which has a clear beginning and end.

What were the sins that led to that first destruction? Our sages tell us that they were idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual corruption and adultery. The Torah itself implies that violation of the Sabbatical Year was a sin which brought about exile. Other teachings of the rabbis point to a cessation of learning and a disrespect of Torah scholars.

All of these things imply a rupture in our relationship to God (the idolatry and dismissal of Torah study) and to the Land of Israel (profaning of the sabbatical year). With all of these things, it seems that Jewish peoplehood remained intact. Although the people were sinning, they were still proudly Jewish and did not turn their backs on each other. (The sin of bloodshed may be referring to the assassination of Gedalia or other high profile murders that did not reflect a general abandonment of Israeli nation.)

The second Rebuke, which parallels the destruction of the second Temple, implies a violation of the third critical relationship of the Jew, his membership in Israel. This is a much more serious offense. If the people are still united, there is always hope that they will repent their sins against God and His Land. If they are not, if their identity becomes erased, how will they ever return?

Why did the Israelites have to go all the way to Shechem for the blessings and curses? One Rabbi suggests that it was to follow in the footsteps of Abraham who went to "The place of Shechem" upon his entry to the land. I would like to suggest that they went to the area where Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. This was the scene of the greatest moment of Jewish disunity, an event that would spiritually haunt the people well into the future.

When Jews do not have each other, they also do not have God or their Land. They are left to the vagaries of a hostile and uncivilized world. The second Rebuke is random, terrifying, unending.

But there is a small light at the end. "You will be offered for sale to your enemies, yet no one will purchase you." A Jew may seek to forget his Jewishness and exchange his nationhood for some other nationality. God is telling us that such an abandonment can never succeed. "They will not buy you." The Jew can never become a full Spaniard, Frenchman, Russian, Englishman or even American. He will remain a Jew, and because of that he will never lose hope to reconnect and be restored.

Perhaps this is why the first Rebuke in Leviticus is phrased in the plural tense. The Rebuke of Deuteronomy is addressed to the individual. If he has cut himself off from his people, he is all alone. But when we are together, no matter how bad the moment, we can quickly return to "The covenant of the forefathers."

The secret of Rosh Hashanah is reestablishing relationships. The most important of those is our relationship with our nation and our Jewish identity. When we fix that, the sages tell us that "the previous year and all of its curses shall end, and a new year with all of its blessings shall commence!"

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