This week’s Torah portion is B’har-B’chukkotay. B’chukkotay contains the first version of the Tochechah, a list of curses for when the Israelites do not follow God’s commandments. The Talmud mandates the Techochah is chanted sotto voce (in a quiet voice), because the congregants are afraid of the curses.
Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam was a Holocaust survivor whose wife and 11 children had been murdered by the Nazis. After the war, he had relocated to Brooklyn. On a Shabbat morning in 1952, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, then a 12-year-old boy, went to Rabbi Halberstam’s synagogue, perhaps to meet the Rabbi. The Torah portion was Ki Tavo, the second version of the Tochechah. Rabbi Riskin told the story.
In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the Tochechah in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word “hecher (louder)” came from the direction of the lectern upon which Rabbi Halberstam was leaning at the Eastern wall of the shul.
The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments. The congregants looked up from the Chumashim in questioning silence. Could they have heard Rabbi Halberstam correctly. Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the Tochechah out loud. The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And Rabbi Halberstam banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation and yelled out is Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face, and fire blazing in his eyes. “I said louder. Read these verses out loud. We have nothing to fear. We’ve already experienced the curse. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let him know that the curses have already befallen and let him know that it’s time for him to send the blessings!”
I put a question: do we read Tochechah out loud, or in whisper?