Our sedra is one for those with ‘moodswings!’ It opens with the simcha-filled bikkurim; ‘and you shall rejoice at all the good that HaShem has given to you… (26;11),’ and the opening word of the sedra (‘vehaya’) means simcha [1]. Later on in the sedra, however, we have the curses on Har Eival. And perek 28 tells both of the blessings that we will enjoy should we follow HaShem, and the (extensive) converse that we will suffer if we are not loyal to Him. The part that we shall focus on is these blessings and curses of perek 28.
The outline is that if we follow HaShem, then us and our material possessions will be blessed with security and prosperity, and other nations will fear harming us. If, however, we do not follow HaShem, there are bitter consequences (poverty, disease, war, etc.) - it does not take an historian to see that these consequences have come true over time. A searching question can be asked here: There seem to be only two alternatives here; prosperity or suffering. What about all the middle possibilities between these two extremes? The same can be asked of the second paragraph of the Shema; if we are good then we get rain, etc. and if we are not good then no rain, etc. What about any middle, ‘non-extreme,’ circumstances? The answer is not easy to swallow, and seems negative, but we shall see that its roots are positive.

The gist of the answer is as follows: there is no middle-ground. We are either doing HaShem’s Will or we are not. If we are doing HaShem’s Will, we get bracha, and if we are not, then we suffer. [That does not mean that everyone who is suffering is not doing HaShem’s Will. There can be other reasons for suffering] This is seen in a statement of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai:[2] ‘Happy are you Israel; when you are doing HaShem’s Will then no nation can rule over you. But when you are not doing HaShem’s Will, then He gives you over to the lowest nation…’ But why is this so?

Some have an incorrect outlook on Jewish History - they think that when we are doing what HaShem wants, we get lifted out of the natural order onto a new ‘supernatural plain,’ where we are successful and unreachable. And when we are not doing His Will, we are plonked back into a ‘natural plain,’ and are susceptible to the natural course of history like other nations. This is incorrect. We are always on a supernatural plain, just either supernaturally blessed or supernaturally cursed depending on our behaviour. If this ‘supernatural’ label seems a bit abstract and comic-bookesque, one only needs to take a brief look at our history. On one hand, no nation has had such national success as ours; we have returned to our homeland a record three times, had a Beis HaMikdash, Shlomo HaMelech was a worldwide king, a group of our holocaust survivors fended off invading armies in 1948, we beat six huge enemies in six days in 1967, etc. But on the other hand, no nation has been more unnaturally downtrodden and persecuted as ours; pogroms, massacres, ‘holy’ wars from two religions, holocausts. So rampant, we are the only nation with its own word for persecution against them; anti-Semitism (‘islamaphobia’ doesn’t count). There have been few ‘average/not-bad’ periods in Jewish history.

In fact, this may be an explanation of a debate between the evil Roman governor Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva recorded in the gemarra.[3] Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva ‘if your G-D loves poor people so much,[4] why does He not provide them with sustenance?’ Rabbi Akiva replies ‘so that others can be saved from gehinnom by giving charity to them.’ Turnus Rufus replies ‘on the contrary, giving them money makes you go to gehinnom… it is like a king who gets angry at his servant and puts him in prison, ordering that nobody may feed him. Someone sneaks in and feeds him - will the king not be angry at this person? And you are called servants [to HaShem] as it says [5] ‘for Bnei Yisrael are servants to Me.’’ Rabbi Akiva counters that the correct comparison is to a king who puts his son in prison and someone sneaks in and feeds him - ‘wouldn’t the king reward such a person? And we are called HaShem’s children, as it says [6] ‘you are children to HaShem your G-D.’’ Turnus Rufus concludes ‘when you are doing HaShem’s Will you are called sons, but when you are not you are called servants, and now you are not doing His Will.’ And Rabbi Akiva answers him (see the gemarra). What exactly is the argument here?
The Maharsha explains that Turnus Rufus agreed with the comparison to a son in principal [when Bnei Yisrael are not in galus], but argued that when Bnei Yisrael are in galus they are regarded as servants. Rabbi Akiva, however, maintained that Bnei Yisrael are called HaShem’s children no matter what - even in galus. The argument is thus as follows. Turnus Rufus held that when Bnei Yisrael are not in galus and are thus ‘close’ to HaShem, they are elevated to the supernatural plain in terms of their history, like a father who does everything personally for his son. But when in galus, he felt that they follow a natural course - HaShem leaves them like a servant in prison whom nobody is to feed. Rabbi Akiva tells us the true picture - that whether in galus or not, we are always children of HaShem, and that we always occupy the supernatural plain in history. If we are doing His Will, it is supernatural success, and if in galus there is still a direct relationship between Father and son; it is just via HaShem bringing supernatural tragedy onto us [for reasons known to Him, of course].[7] What should naturally (no pun) emanate from this idea is a concept which is as important as it is positive, as we shall go on to explain.
For the Jewish People, things are either supernaturally good or supernaturally bad [8]. And just as He personally oversees that the good should happen to us, He personally oversees that the bad should happen to us. This helps us out with another issue. Normally, the keruvim (the child-like images on top of the aron) would only face each other when Bnei Yisrael were behaving well, to display a relationship of closeness with HaShem, but if we behaved badly, the keruvim would turn their backs on each other, denoting a ‘lack of closeness.’ The gemarra tells us that when we were sent into galus the keruvim were facing each other. Why, we were behaving badly at that time? The answer is our concept; in galus and times of tragedy too, HaShem is the One who directly oversees that this tragedy is happening to us, just like He does when bestowing good upon us. It is a different kind of closeness, but a closeness nonetheless. The analogy is to a father who hits his son when the son endangers himself by running into the road; the direct hitting itself is a sign of closeness.
The reason for the presence of only these two extremes is because our covenant with HaShem is so precious, and our mission to spread His light to the world so important. The more important the task is, the less leeway there is. Thus, just like in a vital heart operation there is only success or failure and little leeway for error, so too in Bnei Yisrael’s task in this world there is only really success and failure - there is little room for an average middle ground. Either we are doing our job successfully (and showered with supernatural success) or not (and it’s supernatural tragedy). If one needs a parable, it is like two close friends who form a pact to stand by each other no matter what, in a certain mission. When one friend goes against that pact, it is so hurtful because expectations of fulfilling that capability are that high. Therefore, even the tragedies are directly from HaShem and are an expression of the closeness between us and HaShem, for they are products of a direct relationship and high expectations. This is why the blessings and curses in our sedra are called a ‘covenant’ (28;69), for both show a closeness between us and HaShem - the curses too show the fact that He does not ignore us and give up on us when we default. They show that He is controlling these supernatural tragedies. As Chazal tell us, the worst judgment on Rosh HaShanah is no judgment whatsoever - for this shows that HaShem has ‘given up on this person,’ so to speak. Punishments that are directly administered show the presence of a direct relationship, HaShem’s confidence in our ability to fulfil our role in life, and a willingness for the Father to have His child come back. As Rav Elon commented, the modeh ani speaks of (emunasecha) His emunah, for it is HaShem’s belief in our capability to fulfil our role that facilitates the returning of our souls to us each morning.

What should come out of the above is that supernatural tragedies which we have suffered over the years are not proofs ‘against’ HaShem’s Presence amongst us, but on the contrary, are proofs for and resultant of His being there and our everlasting covenant with him. [We are not saying that every national tragedy was caused by our sin.] If HaShem was not directing it, how could such a nature-defying event have happened? (again, the suffering is always for a reason, and generally unknown to us; see pirkei avos 4;19. It might be bad from our point of view, but it is for a good reason). Just like the supernatural good times are a revelation of His relationship with the Jewish People, so too are the supernatural bad times. This reminds me of a story during the holocaust. In one town, the learned rabbinical judges put HaShem ‘on trial’ for His responsibility for the holocaust. After much arguing back and forth, they reached a verdict. They pronounced Him ‘responsible/guilty’… and then proceeded to daven mincha together. The fact that HaShem is overseeing the national tragedy did not contradict their loyalty to Him, for it actually displayed that we have an important role in the world and a covenant with Him. Like we said, this is not an easy concept to swallow, and the more recent and personal the tragedy, the harder to accept [People have questions of faith on the holocaust, but not on the Roman destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash even though the gemarra says that millions perished and we lost our Beis HaMikdash].
We shall end with a more practical point. Although this idea of the two-extremes is true, the way to achieve personal growth is not to take on everything in one go. Rather, we move forward steadily and grow in a stable way. This is shown by the fact that the Shulchan Aruch [9] writes that during the ten days of repentance, one should take on to refrain from bread baked by a non-Jew. Even though this does not seem to be something that will turn someone into a ‘new person,’ this shows a bit of progress and a willingness to change in a steady and stable fashion. And so is the custom among many on Rosh HaShanah to accept one small new thing to do each day in the coming year as a symbol of their commitment to growth and HaShem’s path.

Have a great Shabbes,
1 Rav Elon, but I know it has an earlier source.
2 Gemarra Kesubos 66b
3 Recorded in Gemarra Bava Basra 10a.
4 The pasuk says that HaShem is close to poor people; ‘mipi olelim veyonkim yasadeta oz’ - from the mouths of the poor/babies and destitute/ucklings You (HaShem) establish strength. (Tehillim 8;3).
5 Vayikra 25;55
6 Devarim 14;1
7 Two additional points here. Firstly, the tragedies do form part of the larger spectre of our future redemption. And secondly, according to our explanation of the Turnus Rufus-Rabbi Akiva debate, one has to distance this from a discussion between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah in Kiddushin 36a. There too, there is a discussion whether Bnei Yisrael are always called HaShem’s Children (R’ Meir), or only when we are doing His Will (R’ Yehudah). The pious Rabbi Yehudah certainly did not have the same outlook as the evil Turnus Rufus! Thus, we’ll say that Rabbi Yehudah agrees with this two-way supernatural plain that Bnei Yisrael always occupy; his whole discussion with R’ Meir is perhaps whether we should see ourselves as servants (and thus work on fear of HaShem as a servant has for his master) or children (and thus first work on love of HaShem as a son has for a father).
8 See Rabbi Kelemen article ‘Finding Love in the Maelstrom,’ Jewish Action 2004
9 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 603. The Rema there adds to check one’s deeds in repentance.

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