The Still, Small Voice
D’var for Behar-Bechukotai (May 15, 2020); Beth Israel Center, Madison, WI
This week’s double parsha is Behar-Bechukotai. Bechukotai is the parsha from my bar mitzvah parsha, from back in May 1989. Luckily for me, it was only a single parsha that year.
But even as a single parsha, Bechukotai is still a beast, because of its 36-verse third aliyah. It’s so long because it features (in excruciating detail) the tocheichah: the curses that would befall the house of Israel if it abandoned the Torah.
And according to the Talmud (specifically, Megillah 31b), the leyning of the curses can’t be interrupted, for two quite contrasting explanations.
One is that the reader might seem to be rejecting the legitimacy of divine punishment.
The other is that the person called to the Torah in the midst of the curses would be required to recite a separate set of brachot, which might seem approving of the curses’ contents.
Learning and leyning a 36-verse aliyah was a tall order for 13-year old me. But there’s more: a minhag to leyn the tocheichah rapidly and in a soft voice.
This minhag can’t be traced to the Talmud. It seems to be first described, explicitly, in 19th-century texts, with only vague hints before that.
But there are, again, two accepted explanations.
One is that the congregation might be disturbed by hearing the curses leyned as if they were business as usual.
The other is that the reader wishes to avert the curses by covering them quickly and quietly.
Both rationales strike me as particularly relevant to our present circumstances.
First, because they speak to a certain idea of how misfortune works: that speaking too loudly about unpleasant consequences invites those consequences. That it’s best to keep our heads down and not speak up about what’s wrong with our world.
Second, because they could convey COVID-19 as some sort of cosmic consequence: divine retribution, if we listen to some voices on the right; nature’s revenge, if we listen to some voices on the left. That we have been, in effect, asking for this pandemic, through our behaviors.
But I don’t agree, at all, with the idea that there is some sort of transcendent meaning to be found in the pandemic. To return to a line from my previous dvar, back in January, before the pandemic: “Deserve’s got nuthin’ to do with it.”
So is there still something to be said for the minhag of reciting the curses in one swift, susurrant recitation?
I think there is, and I would summarize it with a phrase found not in this week’s parsha, but in the first book of Kings, and also in the Unataneh Tokef, of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה
“A still, small voice,” is one translation. More poetically, “a silent murmur,” a susurrus.
In the 19th chapter of the first book of Kings, the prophet Elijah, Eliyahu Hanavi, waits for God in a cave and on a mountain. As the divine presence passes, there is a gale, and an earthquake, and a conflagration. But, the text emphasizes, the divine presence is in none of them. What follows, though, is קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה
And in the Unataneh Tokef, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה is what follows the sounding of the Great Shofar, as the angels themselves are seized with fear and trembling.
More than the howl of wind, or thunder of ground, or roar of fire, or blast of a shofar, then, the קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה demands attention from the listeners. Because, not in spite, of its small stillness, it requires great focus.
My argument, then, is that we understand the susurrus of the tocheichah not as a way to divert or distract from the terrible details of the curses — as a technique of avoidance, or a mystical ward against misfortune — but rather, the opposite: a way to direct attention, to call for concentration. And that if we focus, this is what we come to understand, through listening to the tocheichah:
That whatever is most just and most justified in this world, we find not in the disaster, but in its aftermath; not in the catastrophe, but in the mutual aid and comfort we provide one another in its wake.
And that the real curse would be our failure to provide such comfort.
We won’t actually hear the tocheichah leyned this week — and it seems sadly unlikely we’ll hear the version in parsha Ki Tavo come September. But I hope this gives us something positive to hold on to amidst those silences: that the very present absence of the קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה calls us to recognize how we can push onward.
Not with resignation. Not with fatalism. Not with magical thinking. But with clear, compassionate contemplation of how in the wake of losing so much, we find each other.
That there is no way out but through. Together.
Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek.
And shabbat shalom.