There are two “tochachos” in the Torah; one here, in Bechukosai, and another in Ki Savo. Parallels and contrasts are evident: while Bechukosai’s tochacha lists 49 “curses”, Ki Savo’s list 98. Sforno hints that the Bechukosai tochacha is representative of the Churban Bayis Rishon and the Babylonian exile, while the Ki Savo tochacha is representative of Churban Bayis Sheni and the Roman exile.
One interesting contrast is the fact that in this week’s tochacha, the curses are punctuated with seven repeated Divine warnings of backsliding, usually referred to as “halichas keri”, acting as if the aforementioned “corrections” were to attributed to a source other than Divine, or as to have been “happenstance” and not related to Israel’s relationship with G-d. There is almost no such reference to gradation in Ki Savo: there is the initial warning “And if you will not listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d” in Devarim 28:15, and in the middle of all of the catastrophes, the only other reason given: “Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with happiness and a good heart while you yet had all things” [Devarim 28:47]. It’s almost as if, unlike here, there is no opportunity given for correction of wayward behavior.
Also unlike the Ki Savo tochacha, this weeks parsha seems to provide the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, with G-d reiterating his commitment to the eternity of the Jewish people; even to the point that the last curse—that “the land will desolate itself from them and recoup its [lost] Sabbaths [acc. to Rashi, the violated Shemittos] [27:43]”—indicates that there is an end to the payback. What happens at the end of the Ki Savo tochacha is more harrowing: the last curse is that G-d will return the Jews to Egypt in boats, almost as if a reverse engineering yitizias mitzrayim; and, to add injury to insult, when the Jews try have themselves sold into slavery, Rashi says that the Torah’s proclamation that “no one will buy” is indicative of the likelihood that they will be massacred instead.
If one takes Sforno’s hint as to the relationship between the tochachos and the churbanos, and one remembers the various sins that were supposed to have caused each of the churbanos, the contrast between the two tochachos start to make more sense. The ostensible proximate causes of the first churban are generally listed as the three cardinal sins—avoda zara, gilui arayos, and shefichas damim—and, additionally, there are strong hints in this weeks’ parshah that shemitta was almost never kept during the entire first temple period. Whereas, in the case of bayis sheni, the classic reason given for that curban is sinas chinam, but also one hears that the entire justice system was adjudicated l’shuras hadin [strict letter of the law] as opposed to lifnim mishuras hadin, and that the populace no longer made the blessings on the Torah.
In addition to the difference in kind of the sinning that brought about the churbanos, the Talmudic dictum that “hasra’ah [warnings] do not need to be given to talmidei chachamim” might further illustrate why there is no light at the end of the tunnel in the second tochacha. The society of the bayis rishon/first tochacha was almost perpetually adolescent, in a way, and this reflected in the rather anarchic behavior of not only the populace, but the ruling classes, as detailed in much of Sefer Melachim. However, it was almost this very self-imposed ignorance—according to many midrashim, when Yoshiyahu began his successful campaign of national teshuva at age 26, he hadn’t even SEEN a Sefer Torah for the first 18 years of his reign until Chilkiyahu found one hidden in the heichal—which mitigated the Jews heinous behavior, to the point that there was enough Divine “tolerance” to give warning signs, like the seven in the parsha. Adolescent anarchy is correctable, even if the corrective measures are draconian.
Such mitigating circumstances were no longer applicable in the case of Bayis Sheni. That populace was purported to be learned, which in and of itself raises the level of responsibility further; however, one might see the two other “averos”—regarding birchos haTorah and shuras hadin—as something other than ancillary, as they underpin the entire prosecution. To wit: a populace that was clearly supposed to know better has instead taken upon themselves to use a system of Divine law as a power grab, which more likely than not led them to justify the occurrences of sinas chinam and adjudication solely l’shuras hadin [which might hint at an inability to see the “human” factor in law, or a lack of judicial restraint, but more likely is the confusion of having judicial power with having judicial infallibility]. One then can actually see a deeper meaning in the neglect of birchos haTorah: almost as if those applying the law were acting as if they were the fount of all law and morality, forgetting the actual Source.
In that case, it isn’t enough to just punish a wayward, almost adolescent anarchy with a cleansing exile and a chance to rebuild; its as if the whole project has to be scrapped and re-engineered from the beginning, even unto pre-Torah: going back to Egypt. The Bayis Rishon generation couldn’t—or wouldn’t—follow the Torah; the Bayis Sheni generation took the Torah in a direction it was not supposed to go.
In theory, these characterizations are so open-ended that they can applied by any one side to an antagonist in any socio-politico-religious debate [and not only those]. So those applications will be left to the readers to make, because they will be made anyway.
With one exception: those who are ostensibly “versed in the law” [or look and act like they are, in any case], and then engage in behaviors that transcend depravities prevalent in bayis rishon—and then are defended from prosecution from other people “versed” in Torah who use the Torah to justify said protection, thereby transcending the sins of bayis sheni. They know who they are.