Minutes of Torah

Parashat Ki Tavo contains one of the most terrifying passages in the Hebrew Bible, known as the tokhachah, or “rebuke.” After Moses lists a series of blessings that will ensue if the Israelites keep the covenant with God, he warns them of the terrible fate that will befall them if they abandon it.

The raises the most fundamental question: Is Adonai a god of anger and retribution? What about the sufferings of the innocent? Didn’t Abraham say in defending Sodom and Gommorah: “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” The question has been raised over the generations in which innocents have been part of a tragedy, with its most recent iteration being the Holocaust. Either God 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. They were raised by some the greatest believers of all time — Abraham, Moses and Job, to mention just a few, Yet, there are some things that will always lie beyond the horizons of human understanding. “If I could understand God,” said one Jewish sage, “I would be God.”

The blessings and curses in the Bible are both supernatural and natural. On the one hand, the Bible is dedicated to the proposition that Israel’s destiny as a people depends on its faithfulness to the covenant it made, at Sinai, with God. In that sense it is supernatural.

But there is also a sense of something natural at work also. The number of  Israelites will always be relatively small; and the land of Israel will always be in existential danger, occupying a strategic — but vulnerable, location between three continents. Only through unity and purpose will Israel survive as a nation in its land.

But if it lost its way, if it abandoned the Covenant, the result would be catastrophe. The people who once seemed to be under the special protection of God now appeared to be abandoned by God in exile.

The significance of exile is not merely political. It is spiritual as well. Jews would no longer be under the sovereignty of God, but instead, alien rulers in whose lands they lived. This means that what happens to Israel in exile is not the work of God but of human beings. Exile is precisely the loss of the protection of God and subjection, instead, to the ‘mercy’ of human powers.

In rabbinic times and throughout the Middle Ages there were great catastrophes involving the Jews. All of them were faithfully recorded in Jewish memory, written down in dirges which we say to this day. In each case the poets tried to find religious meaning in tragedy. But rarely did they find that meaning in terms of sin and punishment.

The tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the Holocaust, do not tell us about God but about man. It tells us not about Divine justice but about human injustice. The question raised by Auschwitz is not “Where was God?” but “Where was humanity?” The suffering of Jews in the Diaspora is not Divine punishment but rather a consequence of exile itself — the loss of Providence and being ‘left to chance.’          

The return of Jews to Israel marked the start of a new era in the life of the people of the covenant. As in the days of the prophets, Jews are faced with the challenge of constructing a society on the principles of the covenant: justice and compassion, rule of law, and respect for life and for human dignity.

Yet one principle has always allowed 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 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 God to return to the covenant, is one that cannot be defeated because it can never lose hope.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz


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