The Challenge of the Promise.
How do we view this week’s Parasha with the promises and threats voiced by Moshe Rabbeinu? If we obey G, we will be healthy and wealthy and wise. Our enemies will run from us, our crops will be abundant; our children will be many and satisfied. But if we do not, then we will be scattered to the wind and punished for our disobedience. How then do we handle the question put forth by Rabbi Harold Kushner: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We have been tossed on the winds of faith. Are we so disobedient that we have deserved pogroms and Inquisitions and the Holocaust and modern Anti-Semitism? Can we not call out to G: Oh Holy One of Being, have we not been punished enough? What of the great Tzadikim who are among us? Do they not balance the scales, even a little?”
I must admit that I have trouble with passages such as this; on the one hand they promise us such abundance and on the other threaten us with such horrors. I have trouble seeing the tragedies created by inhumanity, visited on humanity as G’s punishment to a stiff-necked people.
I believe that we tend to use The Wholly One of Being as a scapegoat for the evil that humans heap upon each other.
So how can I read the parts of this passage that promise and threaten?
There was a righteous man who, one night was visited by the Prophet Eliyahu. Eliyahu proclaimed to the man that since he had been living such a righteous life, the Heavenly court had decided that he should have a hint of his reward right here on earth. Eliyahu asked: “What would you like as your special gift?” The man thought for a while and responded: “I would like to see Gan Eden and Gehinom, I would like to see the reward of the righteous and the penalty of the wicked. In other words, I wish to see what is called Heaven and Hell.” And immediately they were transported to Hell to see the punishment awaiting those who have sinned without redemption. And there, sitting at an infinitely long table were the offenders. And on that table was food. A magnificent banquet with every delicacy one could imagine. Food was piled high on beautiful serving plates. Succulent dishes with powerfully subtle aromas lay before these malefactors. The man was shocked until he noticed that each person was attached to very long knives and forks at two places on their arms, one above the elbow and the other below. The result was that the evildoers could not eat and they remained in a perpetual state of starvation. They moaned and wept and cursed, but they could not taste the succulent dishes just inches from them.
The man standing by Eliyahu nodded in awareness. Yes this must certainly be hell. And at that moment they were instantly transported to Heaven. To the man’s total shock, it was exactly like hell. He stared in wide-eyed amazement, no, in shock at the same infinitely long table, the same elegant repast AND THE SAME BOUND CUTLERY. The man, who had lived such a righteous life could hardly believe what he was seeing. Was there no difference in the world to come for the righteous and the wicked? But then he heard the people at the table recite the blessing before the meal and they cut the food and each person fed the one across from hir (hir is how I deal with the challenge of not being gender specific). It was a merry sight to see. There was laughter as they fed each other, some awkwardly, some with experience. There was lively dinner conversation, discussing Torah teachings and their applications to the lives of these righteous people. The man nodded in silence for he had been given a great gift, one that humbled him. The difference between heaven and hell is not what awaits us, but how we will respond to it.
There is a more classic story that comes to mind. It speaks to a personal understanding of our Parasha. There are truths in Torah but we must delve into the scroll of Torah and the scroll of our heart to discover them.
Reb Zusha was a great Rebbe, a learned Rebbe and a very poor man. How would he answer the challenge of the beginning of this passage?
We are told that a man once came to the Rebbe Dovber, the “Maggid of Mezeritch,” with a question.
“The Talmud teaches,” the man began, “that ‘A person is supposed to bless G for the bad just as he blesses G for the good.’ How can this be done? If our sages said that we are to accept stoically, without complaint or bitterness whatever is ordained from Heaven, I could understand that. I can even accept that, ultimately, everything will be for the good, and that everything, in the end, will be a blessing. Of course we are to praise and thank G even though at first glance it appears to be negative. But how can a human being possibly react to what he experiences as bad in exactly the same way he responds to what he experiences as good? How can a person be as grateful for his troubles as he is for his joys?”
Rabbi Dovber replied: “Truly this is a difficult question. To find an answer to your question, you must go and see my disciple, Reb Zusha of Anipoli. Only he can help you in this matter.”
Reb Zusha received his guest warmly as he did with all who crossed his threshold, and invited him to make himself at home. The visitor decided to observe Reb Zusha’s conduct before posing his question. Before long, he concluded that his host truly exemplified the Talmudic dictum which so puzzled him. He couldn’t think of anyone who suffered more hardship in his life than did Reb Zusha: a frightful pauper, there was never enough to eat in Reb Zusha’s home, and his family was beset with all sorts of afflictions and illnesses. Yet Reb Zusha was always good-humored and cheerful, and constantly expressing his gratitude to the Wholly One of Blessing for all G’s kindness.
But what was is his secret? How did he do it? The visitor finally could not contain himself any longer and blurted out his question.
“I wish to ask you something; I need to ask you something. In fact, this is the purpose of my visit to you–our Rebbe advised me that you can provide the answer.”
“What is your question?” asked Reb Zusha.
The visitor repeated what he had asked of the Maggid. “You raise a good point,” said Reb Zusha, after thinking the matter through. “But I find it curious that our Rebbe sent you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering…”
One more quickie: I heard a story of the tribal folk of this land. A man woke up and noticed that his lawn needed mowing. He took his hand mower and pushed it up and down his yard until it was mowed. Sweating, he sat down on the porch, with a sense of accomplishment. His son came out with some lemonade for his father. As the two of them sat together quenching their thirst, the son pointed to and commented on their neighbor’s unkempt yard. The father said not a word. He simply got up and took his hand mower and mowed his neighbor’s yard. A stranger visiting the reservation asked the man why he had mowed his neighbor’s yard. The man answered: “It needed mowing.”
My Rebbe (זצ’ל) was fond of the blessing: “May you live heavenly days on earth.” I believe that he meant that we should be as those souls in heaven and as Reb Zushia on earth. We should help each other and find joy in the simple act of living.
HaShem, The Wholly One of Being, will not change what is, even if we pray: “Dear G please let me show you that winning the lottery won’t change me.” But G is constantly implanting within us the ability to elevate the challenges that we face. Could this be the answer to the question that we feel when we read the promises and threats in the words of our Sacred Text, our Sacred Guide? Is this not truly living a life that fulfills the blessing: May we live heavenly days on earth.