30 May 2019 Parshas Bechukosai: The Courage to Bake Bread
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Bechukosai, we read of the klalos, curses, that will befall our people; a prophecy that has come to fruition one too many time in our long and bitter history of exile. Due to the severity of the curses, these parshios are traditionally read by the ba’al koreh (reader) quickly and quietly.
The pasukim repeatedly warn us that the klalos will occur when the nation walks “casually” with G-d, and throws off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos. While this is undoubtedly true, since every word and letter of our Torah is emes, the umos ha’olam (nations of the world) have gone above and beyond the call of duty in ensuring that these kalalos would come to fruition against us, time and again R”L.
The Torah warns of us illnesses, panic, pining eyes and anguished souls, crops consumed by our enemies, heavens that will be like iron and a land like copper, strength that will be spent in vain, a land that will not yield its produce, beasts of the field that will be sent against us, our roads that will become desolate, the sword that will be brought against us, we will be delivered into the hands of the enemies, our cities will lay in ruin, our sanctuaries will be desolate, and so on and so forth (see Vayikra 26:14-45). One particular curse reads:
בְּשִׁבְרִי לָכֶם, מַטֵּה-לֶחֶם, וְאָפוּ עֶשֶׂר נָשִׁים לַחְמְכֶם בְּתַנּוּר אֶחָד, וְהֵשִׁיבוּ לַחְמְכֶם בַּמִּשְׁקָל; וַאֲכַלְתֶּם, וְלֹא תִשְׂבָּעוּ – When I break for you the staff of bread, ten women will bake your bread in the same oven, and they will bring back your bread by weight; you will eat and not be sated (ibid, v.26). Rashi teaches:
בשברי לכם מטה לחם. אֶשְׁבֹּר לָכֶם כָּל מִסְעַד אֹכֶל, וְהֵם חִצֵּי רָעָב – I will break for you all sustainment of food, and these are the arrows of hunger; ואפו עשר נשים לחמכם בתנור אחד מֵחֹסֶר עֵצִים – Ten women will bake in one oven, due to a lack of wood (for individuals to fire up each one their own oven);
והשיבו לחמכם במשקל. שֶׁתְּהֵא הַתְּבוּאָה נִרְקֶבֶת וְנַעֲשֵׂית פַּת נְפֹלֶת, וּמִשְׁתַּבֶּרֶת בַּתַּנּוּר, וְהֵן יוֹשְׁבוֹת וְשׁוֹקְלוֹת אֶת הַשְּׁבָרִים לְחַלְּקָם בֵּינֵיהֶם – For the grain will rot, and it becomes crumbly bread, and breaks apart in the oven. The ten women sit and weigh the broken pieces to divide them among themselves.
Here we have the terrible curse, may Hashem save us, of scarcity of food, insufficient fire-wood to bake or cook (even if there was enough food!), starvation, and wasting away. Despite this horrific curse, unfathomable-for-us-in-our-society today, perhaps – within the fear and terror of starvation – there is actually a bracha (blessing).
The bracha of Jewish women, of mothers, of their courage to persevere come what may, in the face of unimaginable conditions… Despite it all, the Jewish women found the determination and strength to go out and bake bread. They did not give up and say: since there is nothing to be found, we will eat nothing. They did not give up and say: since our pantries are pitifully empty, and since we can’t fire up our own ovens, we won’t even bother and we won’t even try.
The Jewish mother goes out and ‘bakes bread’. And not only does she bake, but when it comes back in crumbs, those drops of nourishment are divided up amongst the mothers, to sustain their children and families for yet another day. The Jewish mother does whatever she can, even in the face of terrible adversity.
In the “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” exhibit, which we visited last week (which I wrote about in last week’s post: https://michalhorowitz.com/parshas-behar-revering-shabbos-our-sanctuary-in-time/), the following recollection was documented, as recorded in 1946 by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi (1919-1987):
“On the morning of the 21st, we learned that on the following day the Jews would be leaving. The mothers stayed up to prepare the food for the journey with tender care, and washed their children and packed the luggage; and at dawn the barbed wire was full of children’s washing hung out in the wind to dry. Nor did they forget the diapers, the toys, the cushions and the hundred other small things which mothers remember and which children always need.”
Of all the things we saw in the Auschwitz exhibit (at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust), the above quote is the one that moved me to tears. The night before the journey to almost-certain death, the mothers stayed up to prepare food, to wash the clothing, to pack diapers and toys, to remember the small things that everyone else forgets.
וְאָפוּ עֶשֶׂר נָשִׁים לַחְמְכֶם בְּתַנּוּר אֶחָד – the Jewish will women have the courage to bake bread. A bracha indeed.
In his memoirs, From Broken Glass, by Steve Ross (born Szmulek Rozental, Lodz, Poland, 1931), the author writes of the day his mother took him to a Polish family, farmers, who would hide him (till they could hide him no longer, and he was deported). Szmulek was all of 9 years old when his mother left him in the care of the Poles.
“Mama, how will I find you when the war is over?” I said to my mother. Standing at the fence leading to the road we had traveled the day before, my mother crouched and studied my face. She ran her hands along my arms and shoulders, caressed my cheeks, and brushed my eyes with her thumbs.
“We will find each other, Szmulek,” she said. “We will.” Her eyes were flooded with tears. “You’ll be safe now,” she said, her voice nearly too quiet to hear. “We will find each other someday. I promise. I promise.” She kissed my forehead. “I love you, Szmulek.”
She stood, turned, and stepped away down the road as quickly as she could. Rain began to fall. Some part of me knew that I would never see her again, though it would be years before I would admit that to myself (From Broken Glass, by Steve Ross, p.74).
May the Jewish mothers continue to sustain our nation, until we merit the long-awaited promise of consolation and redemption: וְזָכַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י יַעֲק֑וֹב וְאַף֩ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֨י יִצְחָ֜ק וְאַ֨ף אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶזְכֹּ֖ר וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֶזְכֹּֽר – And I will remember my covenant with Yaakov, and also my covenant with Yitzchak, and also my covenant with Avraham I will remember, and the Land I will remember (Vayikra 26:42).
חזק חזק ונתחזק
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,