Ki Tavo 5768

The Blessing and the Curse

The sedra of Ki Tavo contains one of the most terrifying passages in the Hebrew Bible, rivaled only by the parallel text in Vayikra/Leviticus 26. Both are known to tradition as tokhachah, “reprimand” or “rebuke.” Essentially they are warnings of the terrible fate that will overtake Jews if they neglect or abandon their covenant with G-d. Reading them in the context of our time, after the Holocaust, they sound like terrible prefigurations of what in fact occurred. If much of Deuteronomy is a prophetic vision or dream, the tokhachah is the nightmare. Here is its conclusion:

Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other… Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening, “If only it were morning!” – because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see. The Lord will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.

The passage raises the most fundamental questions. Is G-d a G-d of anger and retribution? What about the sufferings of the innocent? Is every bad thing that happens to human beings an instance of Divine justice? Do the victims always deserve their fate? Did not Abraham say, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent people within the city?… Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? ” Did not Moses say, “Shall one man sin and will You be angry with the whole congregation?”

The question is most acute in relation to the Holocaust itself. Why did G-d not stop the slaughter? To put the dilemma in its sharpest form. Either G-d could not have prevented Auschwitz, or He could but chose not to. If He could not, how then can He be all-powerful? If He could but did not, how can He be all-good?

These are difficult questions. No tradition has wrestled with them longer or with greater courage than Judaism. For these are not doubts raised by unbelievers. They were raised by some the greatest believers of all time – by Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Job, by the sages of the Babylonian Talmud and the writers of the medieval kinot (elegies).

There is no answer that will resolve all doubts. The Talmud itself states that G-d answered every question Moses asked of Him except one – Why do bad things happen to good people? There is profound wisdom in the knowledge that there are some things that will always lie beyond the horizons of human understanding. “If I could understand G-d,” said one Jewish sage, “I would be G-d.” In his essay Kol Dodi Dofek the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik gives a striking analogy:

“To what may the matter be compared? To a person gazing at a beautiful rug, a true work of art, one into which an exquisite design has been woven – but looking at it from its reverse side. Can such a viewing give rise to a sublime aesthetic experience? We, alas, view the world from its reverse side. We are, therefore, unable to grasp the all-encompassing framework of being. And it is only within that framework that it is possible to discern the divine plan, the essential nature of the divine actions.”

A Persian carpet turned upside down looks like a mass of disconnected threads without pattern or purpose. It is only when we view it the right way up that we see its intricate design. So it is with history. We are on the ground, looking up. We cannot see things from the point of view of G-d, looking down. We are human, not divine.

Nothing therefore in what follows should be taken as more than a speculation – one among many in the Jewish tradition. When one speaks of such things one should do so with fear and trembling, for they are among the deepest mysteries of faith. If these words do not speak to you, please ignore them and turn to some among the many other writings on the subject. There is no one answer. But Jews throughout the ages have not flinched from asking the question. That is part of what makes us Israel, the people who “have wrestled with G-d and with human beings and survived.”

The blessings and curses in the Bible are both supernatural and natural. It is one of the essential aspects of the Book (as the sages and Maimonides noted) that it can be read at many levels. On the one hand the entire vision of the Bible is dedicated to the proposition that Israel’s destiny as a people depends on its faithfulness or lack of it to the covenant it made, at Sinai, with G-d. In that sense it is supernatural.

On the other hand, there is a profound sense that there is something natural at work also. Not by chance are the children of Israel and the land of Israel exemplars of the relationship between humanity and G-d. The people of Israel will always be small (“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord has set His heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples”). The land of Israel will always be vulnerable, occupying as it does a strategic location between three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, and two traditional bases of empire, the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates valleys. Only by almost superhuman achievements of national unity and moral purpose will Israel survive as a nation in its land. So it was in biblical times. So it is today.

The geography of Israel is also significant. Lacking as it does a constant, predictable water supply, its people will constantly find themselves looking up to the heavens for rain. They will know that (agricultural) prosperity is not entirely in their own hands. They will know also that there will be times of drought and famine during which the poor (small farmers) will be dependent on the generosity of others. The strength of the social bond – tzedakah, the charity which is also justice – will be constantly tested. Any age in which the rich fail in their responsibilities to those less well off, or in which the sellers exploit the buyers, will be full of danger because the nation can only survive on the basis of a strong sense of collective responsibility.

For these reasons, the external fate of Israel peculiarly mirrors its internal faith. In good times it will seem to record almost miraculous achievements, outperforming nations far larger, wealthier and potentially more powerful than itself. In bad times it will suffer grievously as the surrounding empires take vengeance on its mere existence as an independent nation whose laws and customs, beliefs and values are different from theirs.

As I pointed out in ‘Radical Then, Radical Now’ (called in America ‘A Letter in the Scroll’), you do not have to be Jewish to sense the presence, in Israel’s history, of something larger than merely human. As Pascal put it in his ‘Pensées’:

It is certain that in certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people, separated from the other peoples of the world, and this is called the Jewish people… This people is not only of remarkable antiquity but has also lasted for a singularly long time… For whereas the peoples of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens and Rome, and others who came so much later have perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out, as their historians testify, and as can easily be judged by the natural order of things over such a long spell of years. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold… My encounter with this people amazes me…

Israel is the supreme example in history of a nation whose very existence depends on a national covenant with something greater than a king or “We, the people,” namely G-d Himself – G-d, moreover, not as a philosophical concept or theological construct but as a Presence intimately involved in the life of the nation and its fate.

Likewise, the collapse of the nation will be dramatic. It will happen because the unity of G-d is no longer reflected in the unity of the people. Some will be faithful, others will not. They will worship idols or adopt, in other ways, the prevailing culture of their times. The institutions of power – the king, the government, the market and its traders, the priests and self-styled prophets – will become corrupt. Strains will develop in the social fabric. Prophets will warn of this, but their words will not be heeded.

The people of Israel have always been obstinate. This is their greatest strength and greatest weakness. It helped them stand out against the idols of their age. But it also at times made them arrogant – ungrateful to G-d, unmindful of their vulnerability, at times unsympathetic to their own vocation. The danger has always been that Israel would simply fail to cohere as a nation – the verdict delivered in the last verse of the Book of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.” It would lack the (moral, political, social) unity absolutely necessary to its survival as an independent nation.

The result would be catastrophe. The nation that once seemed invincible would be defeated. Worse, it would sometimes seem (as it did to Josephus, witnessing the catastrophic revolt against Rome) as if Jews were more intent on fighting other Jews than the enemy at the gates. The result would be that the people who once seemed to be under the special protection of G-d now appeared to be abandoned by G-d. As Moses puts it in the tokhachah, “You will become a consternation, a proverb and a byword among all the peoples to which the Lord will drive you.”

Israel would find itself in exile. The significance of exile is not merely geographical. It is political and spiritual as well. Jews would no longer be under the unmediated, direct sovereignty of G-d. They would be under the sovereignty of the rulers or governments in whose lands they lived. Their fate would depend on the whim of a king or the shifting winds of popular opinion. In this sense galut, exile, is a metaphysical dislocation – a lack of freedom in every sense of the word. The Torah calls this the “hiding of the face” of G-d.

This means that what happens to Israel in exile is not the work of G-d but of human beings. Exile is precisely the loss of the protection of G-d and subjection, instead, to human powers. This is how Moses himself puts it in the name of G-d:

On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and difficulties will come upon them, and on that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come upon us because our G-d is not with us?’ And I will certainly hide my face on that day…

The major Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages – Judah Halevi, Maimonides and Nachmanides – all agreed on this – that Divine providence governs the affairs of Israel only when they exist as a sovereign people in their own land. Then there is reward and punishment, prophecy and a correlation between what happens to the people and what they do. But exile, galut, dispersion, precisely mean being removed from the mercy of G-d and being placed at the mercy of the nations. Exilic history is not providence but the loss of providence, what Maimonides calls “being left to chance.”

This has immense consequences. Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershom, Gersonides, 1288-1344) points this out in his commentary to the episode in the Book of Judges (7:1) in which the Israelites are defeated at Ai, with the loss of thirty-six men. The problem in this passage is this. The people killed in battle were not guilty of a sin. Indeed it was the sin of someone else (Achan ben Zerach) that brought about the defeat. How could it happen that the guilty survived while the innocent died?

Gersonides draws a fundamental distinction between a tragedy which is the work of Providence (for example, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah) and a tragedy that comes about because of a withdrawal of Providence (as happened at Ai). When G-d destroys, He destroys only the guilty. When G-d withdraws and man destroys, the innocent suffer as well.

Abrabanel (to Joshua 7:1) makes essentially the same point:

There is a distinction between punishment which comes about by a Divine action and punishment which comes about through removal of Providence. When G-d punishes by direct action, he does not punish the person who has not sinned on account of him who has… Not so the punishment which comes about by chance as a result of G-d’s withdrawing his Providence. For this befalls the community in its entirety in that, because there are sinners among them, G-d hides His face from them all… All of them become exposed to the workings of chance and accident, so that occasionally a person who has not sinned is also smitten when he is exposed to danger, and the sinner, who may not have been there, escapes unharmed.

In rabbinic times and throughout the Middle Ages there were great catastrophes of which Jews were the victims. There were the Hadrian persecutions, the murder of Jews in the Crusades, the blood libels, the Inquisition, the pogroms. All of them were faithfully recorded in Jewish memory, written down and recited in elegies which we say to this day. In each case the rabbis and poets tried to find religious meaning in tragedy. But rarely if ever did they find that meaning in terms of sin and punishment. The poets of catastrophe during the Crusades compared their sufferings to the binding of Isaac, the tragedy of Job, and the suffering servant of Isaiah – all the cases in the Bible where suffering is not related to sin.

The Holocaust does not tell us about G-d but about man. It tells us not about Divine justice but about human injustice. The question raised by Auschwitz is not “Where was G-d?” but “Where was man? Where was humanity?” This is not radical post-Holocaust theology but a view already adopted by Judaism’s greatest exponents in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries.

Nor is it accidental that the rise of antisemitism in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century led to the birth of Zionism, the desire of Jews to return to their land and recover their sovereignty as a people. This too was foreseen by Moses:

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your G-d disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your G-d and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your G-d will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the lord your G-d will gather you and bring you back.

There is in Jewish history an extraordinary interweaving of history and prophecy, the natural and supernatural, the choices of human beings and the overarching tutelage of G-d. The suffering of Jews in the Diaspora is not Divine punishment but rather a consequence of exile itself – the loss of Providence, the hiding of the face of G-d, and being “left to chance.” The idea that there is one answer to the problem of evil and the sufferings of the innocent, true at all times, is simply wrong. There are different historical eras, and these represent different relationships between Israel and G-d.

The return of Jews to Israel marks the start of an old-new era in the life of the people of the covenant. Once again, as in the days of Joshua, Jews are faced with the challenge and opportunity of constructing a society on the principles of the covenant, an arena of justice and compassion, liberty and the rule of law, respect for life and for human dignity. It was never easy. Now, as then, Jews face enemies outside and tensions within. Now, as then, there have been moments when the people must have come close to despair. Yet one principle has always been engraved on the Jewish heart, allowing it to emerge from tragedy with hope intact. It is the principle of “the blessing and the curse” of which Moses spoke so eloquently. When Jews have suffered, their first reaction is not to blame others but to examine themselves. That is why bad times – the times spoken of in the tokhachah – have always led to national renewal, and the worse the times, the greater the renewal. A people capable of seeing suffering as a call from G-d to return to the covenant, choosing and sanctifying life, is one that cannot be defeated because it can never lose hope.

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