Punishment and Prayer by Nachum Fisch


In this week’s Parashah, Parashat Ki Tavo, we read about the blessings and curses Bnei Yisrael would receive on Har Gerizim and Har Eival. We learn about certain forbidden actions and their punishments if Bnei Yisrael perform these sins, as well as the reward if they abstain from them. Among the sins are idolatry, dishonoring one’s parents, cheating in business, giving deliberately misleading advice with malicious intent, and overall non-observance of the Torah; the punishment includes expulsion from the land of Israel, disease, enslavement to other nations, scattering amongst the nations of the world, and living in eternal fear. If these are accurate, then why are we not afflicted like this whenever someone does anything from the list of transgressions?

A solution lies in a connection between a Pasuk in this week’s Parashah, the prayer "Tachanun," and opinions in the Gemara and Rishonim. The text in Ki Tavo reads, "VeHayu Chayecha Telu'im Lecha MiNeged UFachadta Laylah VeYomam VeLo Ta’amin BeChayecha,” "And your life will hang in doubt before you, and you will fear day and night and have no assurance of your life” (Devarim 28:66). The second piece comes from Tachanun, the daily supplication said after the Amidah, which begins, "Tzar Li Me’od Niplah Na VeYad Hashem Ki Rabim Rachamav UVeYad Adam Al Epolah," “I am greatly distressed; let me fall into Hashem’s hand because of his bountiful mercy, and let me not fall into man’s hand” (Shmuel II 24:14). Third, according to one opinion in the Gemara (Berachot 26b), the source for Tefilah is from the Korbanot. We can extend this connection between Tefillah and Korbanot with the Ramban's understanding of a Korban (commentary to Vayikra 1:9), that when one sacrifices an animal, in reality he is using it as a replacement for himself.

These ideas, although scattered throughout various parts of Jewish tradition, reveal the purpose of Davening. When a person transgresses in one of the aforementioned ways, the punishments listed above are supposed to befall him. However, the Korbanot were designed to our meriting Hashem granting us forgiveness. Nowadays, we have no Korbanot, so we instead use Davening for that purpose. We can see from this logical chain that we have a way to spiritually improve and thereby shield ourselves from the brunt of Hashem’s anger. This theme was used by David HaMelech (Shmuel II 24:14) and later incorporated into Tachanun. He understood the true power of Teshuvah and the resultant divine forgiveness and mercy, and that is why we incorporate his words into Tachanun – the prayer whose explicit purpose is to promote Teshuvah and throwing oneself at Hashem’s mercy.

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, Hashem’s mercy becomes an overarching theme in our lives. We should all keep this understanding of Teshuvah and Hashem’s great power of Rachamim – and how to deserve it , and have a meaningful and successful Yamim Nora’im.

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