The parashah describes terrible calamities — disease, war, famine, and exile — that result when Israel abandons the Torah. According to Talmudic tradition, the primary reason for punishment is one particular offense: corruption in the judicial arena.
“As a punishment for [unnecessary] delay in executing judgment, perversion of judgment, and neglect of Torah — sword and plunder increase, pestilence and famine ensue. People eat, yet remain hungry; and they eat their bread by weight.” (Shabbat 33a)
Why does judicial abuse bring about such harsh punishments?
When the court system is corrupt, acquitting the guilty and convicting the innocent, instead of advancing social justice, it increases injustice and exploitation. A corrupt judicial system indicates that the fundamental fabric of society has degenerated to gangs of rapacious wolves, as the rich and powerful prey upon the weak and unprotected. In such a disastrous situation, the institutions of society must be completely revamped. If the nation refuses on its own to champion justice and fairness, Divine providence intervenes to uproot society, so that it may be rebuilt properly.
Neglect of Torah
What did the Sages mean by bitul Torah — ‘neglect of Torah’? How is this connected to judicial corruption?
The term bitul Torah expresses moral decay in society’s inner spirit. The masses reject the Torah as an inspiration to seek justice; its teachings no longer serve as a guideline for spiritual and ethical aspirations. Bereft of spiritual goals, life degenerates into self-centered materialism. Life’s aims are limited to the fulfillment of physical desires and wants. This egocentric outlook undermines the striving for the communal good, and respect for the rights of others.
Hunger of the Soul
The Sages taught that people suffer by “eating, yet remaining hungry.” Why this particular punishment?
Our feelings of self-worth are based on our sense of honor and integrity. When the principles of law and order are abandoned, our positive self-image is damaged. The human soul naturally aspires to the ideals of good, enlightenment, and fairness. When our goals are limited only to that which the hand may grab and the tooth may chew, the soul is unfulfilled and dissatisfied. We eat to fill our bellies, yet remain hungry and discontented.
Bread by Weight
Finally, the Sages taught, “they eat their bread by weight.” What is the nature of this hardship?
Bread is usually sold by unit, not by weight. But in times of famine, bread becomes a scarce commodity and is sold by weight. This change helps reinforce a heightened sensitivity toward the property rights of others. Our former unconcern regarding theft, our basic indifference toward the property of others, is corrected by a keen awareness of the value of every gram of bread.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 185-186.)