Parshat Vayelech – פרשת וילך

Parshat Vayelech – פרשת וילך
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayelech – פרשת וילך
September 15, 2018 – ו תשרי תשעט
Jewish Suffering
God told Moses that after his death the Israelites would stray from the covenant and worship foreign gods. The divinely- imposed punishment for religious rebellion would be severe: “And My wrath will flare against them on that day, and I shall forsake them and hide My face from them, and they will become fodder, and many evils and troubles will find them (Deuteronomy 31:17).” Rashi emphasized that the Israelites’ awareness that God had forsaken them would necessarily exacerbate their suffering.
The leading third century Babylonian Amora Rav said that whoever has not personally experienced the concealment of God’s face or been fodder for the heathens is not from among the Jewish People אינו מהם (Hagigah 5a). An allusion to this idea can be found in the text. Scripture uses the plural in prophesying the concealment of God’s face from “them,” but the singular in predicting how “they will become fodder.” God’s wrath is loosed on Jewry collectively, but is also manifested by troubles that affect individual Jews (Ibn Ezra and Torah Temimah).
Maharsha explains that “concealment of God’s face,” known as hester panim, is a phenomenon exclusive to Jews. For it is only we, as the chosen people, who are the recipients of the blessing “May God lift up His face to you (Numbers 6:26).” Israel, alone, has been enabled to experience the high of the Divine Presence; but it, alone, also knows the depressing low of being forsaken by its Heavenly Father. Heathens experience neither of those spiritual extremes. Turei Even notes that, in this world, God harshly punishes Jews for their iniquities, in order that they might be cleansed and, as a result, become worthy of a portion in the hereafter. Towards heathens, God withholds punishment so that they merit eternal damnation.
Deuteronomy 31:17 uses graphic language. Literally, it says that Israel will be food for its pagan enemies. Cannibalism is not meant. Rather, the sense is that Israel will be easy prey for hostile nations. Scripture uses similar language in correspondingly describing what would happen to its enemies were Israel to remain loyal to the commandments: “And you shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is about to give you. Your eye shall not pity them (Deuteronomy 7:16).”
In fact, Israel strayed from adhering to the commandments, including the prohibition on worshiping false gods and idols. The Psalmist lamented, “For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation (79:7).” We recite this verse at the Passover Seder as we open the door for Elijah the Prophet and pray for safety and salvation from the murderous designs of our foes.
In all of rabbinic literature, the term אינו מהם, describing someone -- regardless of his actual religious identity -- as not being “from among them [the Jewish People]” appears in only one other text. The Midrash teaches that whoever is merciful toward his fellow man is certainly a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that anyone who is cruel is not descended from them אינו מהם. Evidence of the compassionate and merciful nature of the Hebrews is seen in Joseph’s tearful response to his brothers’ desperate plea for leniency (Genesis 50:17). In contrast, the Gibeonites cruelly demanded that King David hand over Saul’s descendants for gruesome execution. Scripture redundantly states that the Gibeonites were “not of the Children of Israel” (II Samuel 21:2). The sages explained that anyone who behaves so cold-heartedly cannot be regarded as an Israelite (Lekach Tov Genesis 50).
A thematic connection can be drawn between the two usages of אינו מהם in rabbinic literature. Precisely because the Jewish people have, over the millennia, experienced so much suffering, we, more than others, have developed a greater sensitivity to the plight of the oppressed. This sensitivity is evident in Deuteronomy 7:16, where the Israelites are instructed not to have mercy on the Canaanite nations they are set to dispossess. Other, more barbaric, nations would not have needed any such instruction. They would naturally have slaughtered their enemies, and relished doing so. Only Israel, because of its kindly disposition, had to be ordered not to let its gentle humanism interfere with the military objectives deemed necessary.
The Talmud records an unpleasant incident involving the great fourth-generation Babylonian Amora Rava (Hagigah 5b). His colleagues accused him of never having experienced hester panim and never having been “devoured” by the heathens. Rava was a wealthy man. So far as his colleagues knew, he had never been the victim of anti-Semitic persecution. Rava told the rabbis that, on the contrary, the Persian king Shapur had extorted a large sum of money from him. Nonetheless, the rabbis cast an evil eye upon Rava, and the agents of King Shapur yet again took wealth from him. The story is bizarre. But it shows the extent to which learned Jews believed that personal suffering on account of one’s Jewish identity was an integral part of that identity.
Talmudic tales of rabbis interacting with heathen monarchs are of dubious historical value. But there are enough stories involving Rava and members of the Sassanid royal family to provide a rough idea of the nature of his relationship with the government. Rava (270-352 CE) was a contemporary of King Shapur II (309-379 CE) and his mother, Ifra Hormuz. The royal mother held Rava in high esteem as a holy man and scholar. The king did not share his mother’s assessment. On one occasion, Rava flogged a Jewish man to death for having cohabited with a heathen woman. Shapur wished to punish Rava for overstepping his authority. Ifra Hormuz asked her son to spare Rava because he was a great man and God answered his prayers for rain. Shapur denied that there was any connection between Rava’s prayers and the weather; it was simply that the time for rain had arrived (Ta’anit 24b). In another incident, Ifra Hormuz sent Rava specimens of her menstrual blood to examine. (Her Zoroastrian practices mirrored the Jewish hilkhot niddah (Nidah 20b).) To her amazement, Rava correctly identified the type of blood. Shapur was unimpressed; he asserted that Rava had simply made a lucky guess (Niddah 20b). In a third incident, Ifra Hormuz sent Rava an animal to be offered as a sacrifice. Rava complied with the request by having his non-Jewish workers build an altar and offer the animal (Zevahim 116b). In a fourth, she gave Rava four hundred dinars to be dispersed among the poor. Rava reluctantly accepted the money and carried out the charitable mission in order to maintain peaceful relations with the government (Baba Bathra 10b).
The prevalent themes in these stories are Rava’s cold relationship with the king and his great fear of doing anything to offend the royal house. Despite the presence of his admirer, the King’s mother, Rava understood that he was only one false move away from arousing anti-Jewish enmity into action, and suffering the consequences.
The characterization of Israel as a beleaguered and suffering nation was codified in halakhah. When a prospective proselyte comes before the rabbinical court, the gatekeepers of Judaism pointedly tell him that he has evinced a certain irrationality in choosing to join a persecuted nation (Yebamoth 47a and Yoreh De’ah 268:2). Augustine’s doctrine of continued Jewish witness to the truths of Christianity helped keep in check the most violent anti-Jewish tendencies then extant, but also served to confirm Jewry’s status as a suffering people.
Shylock says that “[S]ufferance is the badge of all our tribe (Merchant of Venice, Act 1 Scene 3).” Many Jews have held this same view.  It is no accident that the title of twentieth century American-Jewish historian Abram Sachar’s 1939 history of inter-war Jewry is Sufferance is the Badge.
Unfortunately, certain sectors of the Jewish community have so thoroughly absorbed the notion of Jewish helplessness and suffering into their conception of true Judaism that their ideologies cannot brook any positive development in Jewish national life. Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists insist that their opposition to the State of Israel is in essence a theological objection to any pre-messianic restoration of Jewish sovereignty. However, some of their more fundamentalist elements (e.g., Neturei Karta) take matters further by embracing and endorsing anti-Jewish tyrants and actively and visibly opposing pro-Israel demonstrations. Those who have attended recent pro-Israel rallies near the United Nations headquarters have observed this upsetting phenomenon.  Stuck in the reality of centuries past, these anti-Medinat Yisrael Jews cannot escape a religious identity that includes humble subservience to those who harbor violent thoughts of our – and their own -- demise.  News photographs of Neturei Karta adherents warmly greeting Iranian political figures whose genocidal statements about the Jewish people have been clear and unambiguous are, to many Jews, stomach-turning.
Others Jews, who profess a Judaically-inspired moral opposition to Zionism, have stuck themselves into the viscous goo of the inapposite paradigm of Jewish suffering and helplessness. Their religious mindset seems to be that Jews may only receive a bludgeoning; never are Jews to be the ones administering it, even to those who seek our destruction. The words of Irgun leader Akiva Ben-Canaan in Exodus would strike such people as high heresy: “No one can say the Jews have not had more than their share of injustice these past ten years. I therefore say, let the next injustice work against somebody else for a change.”
True Judaism appreciates that suffering can be an important means of expiating sin, reminding us of our relationship with God, and serving as the foundation of an elevated moral compass. But suffering should not be regarded as a permanent, or an inherent, aspect of the Jewish condition. To be a Jew does not necessarily mean to suffer. It has, historically, meant that; but not at all times and not for all Jews. The dean of twentieth century Jewish historians, Salo W. Baron, vigorously opposed the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” that was espoused a century earlier by Heinrich Graetz. That view emphasized exilic suffering and religious scholarship.  Baron’s eighteen volume Social and Religious History of the Jews does not minimize the mournful moments of our story, but it also chronicles the uplifting and joyful ones.
Today, Israel stands as a shining beacon of scientific, intellectual, medical, entrepreneurial, and other achievement. Indeed, in the last hundred years, Jewish doctors have materially decreased the suffering of many millions of people through major discoveries like the Salk vaccine for polio, the genetic screening test for carriers of Tay-Sachs disease, certain antibiotics, use of injectable insulin, and many others. Jews were also major supporters of equal rights for African-Americans. German Jews were among the founders of the NAACP. An iconic image of the civil rights movement is that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching shoulder to shoulder with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
In addition, Jews since the end of World War II have demonstrated – physically and militarily -- the opposite of the “victim” or “suffering” mentality. In 1948, Israel’s armed forces were victorious against overwhelming odds. In 1956, the campaign in Sinai was highly successful. In 1967, the IDF crushed the Arab armies, including destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground in a brilliant attack. In 1973 – though, to be sure, there were existential moments – the IDF repelled the Arab invasion. In 1976, the daring raid on Entebbe demonstrated unequivocally the magnificent capabilities of Israeli commandos.  Repeatedly in the last 70 years, the Israeli armed forces have demonstrated their mettle, bravery, and operational excellence on the ground and in the air.
Thus: Jews have established, beyond cavil, their military prowess. And we have established, beyond any doubt, a track record of medical, scientific, and other achievement that has benefited mankind in general. Jews have reduced suffering for non-Jews everywhere. For ourselves: Surely the time is long past when we should automatically – or at all -- think of ourselves as meant to suffer, or as victims, or as pawns to be manipulated by other nations for their own reasons of realpolitik. We should, instead, put permanently on the shelf the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.”