If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time… you will eat your bread to satiety and you will dwell securely in your Land. (Vayikra 26:3-5)
This week’s parsha starts with a promise. We do what God wants and we’ll get blessings. And more than what I quoted. Peace in the Land. Miraculous victories against enemies. Fruitfulness. And of course, if you don’t do what God wants, punishments. Many more punishments. 5 sets of punishments.
For many people living in the world of today, it is these sentiments that make them feel, at the very least, uncomfortable. At the very most, downright caustic and incendiary to this Abrahamic God! The most vocal on such sentiments is noted atheist Stephen Fry.
Mr. Fry in some aspects is very right. Chillingly so. If an all knowing, all powerful, all loving God exists, how can the terrible suffering of the innocent possibly be part of His plan? Where is this God’s justice?
It’s a big questions and by no means will this blog post give a complete answer to it. But there are certainly 3 considerations I think people should have in mind when wrestling with it.
First let’s deal with the actual passages from the Torah. Yes the Torah is explicitly stating, do God’s Mitzvahs there will be reward. Don’t do them, there will be punishments. And what makes us uncomfortable with that notion (as I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts) is that we don’t believe it to be true. We’ve seen innocent, honest, loving people suffer and go through the most trying of times. So based on the Torah, what should one think? That that person MUST have deserved it? That response is putrefying.
But a Rabbi in Jerusalem pointed out something about the Shema prayer we say twice a day. The Shema has the Jewish motto “Hear, O Yisreal, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Then it is followed by 3 paragraphs. The first paragraph tells you to love God, talk about Torah in your house, with your kids, etc, wrap tefillin, and put mezuzahs on your doors. Then the second paragraph tells you to…. love God, talk about Torah in your house, with your kids, etc, wrap tefillin, and put mezuzahs on your doors. Exact same commandments. But the 2nd paragraph then lists rewards and punishments. Why the punishments in one paragraph but not the other?
That’s when Rabbi Resnick pointed out something that doesn’t translate in the English. That the commandments in the first paragraph are in the singular. But in the second paragraph the commandments are in the plural. And that’s the take away. When we, by ourselves, do things we shouldn’t we may not see justice or punishment. But when we as a community are doing wrong, that’s when consequences will be felt. So when we see that tragedy befall someone in our community, we should look at it as something we all have caused. Because of our actions someone is no longer whole. And we should view it as our responsibility and obligation to help restore them the best we can.
The commandments in this week’s parsha are all in the plural.
A book for the Jews
It’s essential to remember that the Torah (the 5 books of Moses, the Old Testament) was written for the Jews. With the exception of the 7 specific commandments, the rest of the world isn’t held to the expectation of keeping the bible. Non-Jews can enjoy bacon, watching sports on Saturdays, gossiping, and wearing wool-linen blends! Jews are supposed to be setting an example and revealing to the world why living with the Torah leads to a better life, but there’s no fire and brimstone for the non-Jew who doesn’t. So for the religious extremest screaming that “God’s wrath will reign down upon the sinners of the earth,” the effort is both misplaced and unfounded. It only serves to further drive a wedge between those doing the screaming and those being screamed at.
It is Simply Not Acceptable.
In the video above, at 1:27 Mr. Fry says,
Yes the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind… Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.
And my response to that is to ask, it’s simply not acceptable? Really? If Mr. Fry really is so concerned with the victims of the Loa Loa eye worms in Africa why isn’t he doing something about it? If he is so vitriolically appalled that he feels justified in cursing God’s name, why isn’t he acting to solve the problem? Because he probably doesn’t really care.
Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Fry supports 31 charities and foundations. And he donates to causes such as AIDS research, the homeless, literacy, disaster relief, and 17 others. Stephen Fry will probably donate more to helping mankind than I ever will. But if he really wanted to eradicate bone cancer in children, he could. Or at least get us a lot closer to the finish line.
I fundamentally believe that human beings were put on this earth to perfect it. That we have the power to change the world in ways you can’t possibly imagine. But we have to really want the change. That means dedication and sacrifice. It means being a top priority. And the truth of the matter is that very few people really are willing to make that sacrifice. I know I’m not. The bulk of my energy is put into trying to be a successful screenwriter. Finding a girlfriend. Having an apartment in a decent part of the city.
And that’s okay. We are free to pursue our own lives and be happy. We don’t have to solve all the world’s problems. But we must never forget that we could. If America honestly cared about stopping poverty in Africa, we could do it. A scene from the Aaron Sorkin’s the West Wing illustrates my sentiments perfectly.
To see real change in the world takes unity, dedication, perseverance, and fighting against the most impossible of odds. The first three can be attained through will. The last one, that takes faith. So when Mr. Fry accuses God of being selfish because, “we have to spend our lives on our knees thanking Him!?” I have to say, no we’re not supposed to spend our whole lives thanking Him. We’re supposed to be spending our lives with a purpose. And if we’re honestly pursuing that purpose, it’s quite possibly the most exciting and invigorating life one can lead. And this week’s parsha tells us that while on that purpose, God will send miracles to help you succeed. In the face of those impossible odds. And that is certainly something worth thanking God on your knees for.