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Parsha Ponderings – Bechukosai – The Yoke-Choke

אני ד’ אלקיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים ואשבור מוטות עלכם ואולך אתכם קוממיות

I am God, your Lord, who took you out of Egypt;

I broke the fasteners of your yoke and led you erect

Concluding the first half of Parshas Bechukosai’s “Tochacha”, or Admonition, which discusses the positive ramifications of heeding the Torah, is a strangely-worded reminder of God’s role in the Exodus from Egypt.

“I am God, your Lord, who took you out of Egypt”, says God, “I broke the brace of your yoke and led you erect”.

While reminders about the Exodus are fairly commonplace in the Torah, nowhere is the fact that God “broke the fasteners of our yoke and led us erect” mentioned. In fact, the very meaning of these words is shrouded in mystery. What does “breaking the fasteners of your yoke” imply beyond the lifting of Egyptian slavery already mentioned in the words “I am God, your Lord, who took you out of Egypt”? Moreover, how does that added dimension of the Exodus, whatever it may be, relate specifically to the context of the Tochacha?

It would seem that the message here is as follows. While the actual burden of Egypt was certainly lifted the moment the Israelites fled, the yoke upon which that burden had rested remained tightly fastened to their necks, until God Himself intervened to loosen the time-hardened straps which refused to give way.

Even as the Israelites were being freed from their masters, they could not bring themselves to shed the trappings of slavery, because they still viewed themselves as  full-fledged, albeit temporarily unemployed, members of the slave-class. The psyche of the slave, forever fitted with the yoke lest a burden catch him unready, had to be forcibly removed by God- “I broke the fasteners of your yoke”-, and replaced- “and I led you erect”-, by the sense of self-respect befitting a Chosen Nation. No progress would have been possible toward the direction of achieving Godliness and fulfilling Torah, God knew, without the Israelites first shedding their collective negative self-image, for one cannot possibly act like a prince when he thinks of himself as a pauper.

By concluding the first half of the Tochacha with a reminder of the shot-in-the-arm God gave us at the time of the Exodus, the Torah is intimating that retaining that sense of self-worth is our last, best hope toward retaining our grip on the path of virtue under discussion. Should we continue to regard ourselves as the princely nation we truly are, we are being told, we cannot possibly stoop to the lows which permanently rip us from our natural habitat of virtue. It is only if we regress toward the pre-yoke-shedding frame of mind that we then run the risk of falling so deep into the abyss of sin so as to bring on the horrors of Tochacha Part II.

Or (so much for the prose):

“I’m a prince”, to ourselves we must tell, and all will forever be well,

for even if we slip and fall, we’ll get right back up and stand tall.

View ourselves as the slaves we once were, and destruction is all we’ll incur,

for sin feels at home and sets in, on he who can’t keep up his chin.

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