Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Hurray, Israel and the Diaspora are back in synch!  I can shed one of my many sources of guilt.  I no longer must feel in the wrong about writing for those of us in Exile instead of the Jews on the front lines of our people in the proto-redeemed state.  But don't worry, I still have plenty of other issues to feel guilty about.  That feeling of accountability for things beyond our control is common, like I know it's not my fault that we weren't on the same page, but I still feel bad.  This is very familiar to sports fans.  According to an ESPN poll one in five sports fans believe that they can affect results of games based upon their actions.  People actually believe that what they wear or whether they are watching can affect on field results, bring luck or jinx to their beloved team.  There's a hilarious scene in the movie Celtic Pride, showing the ridiculous machinations of fans in Boston Garden to bring success to the home town team.  The sad part is that it really happens.   I mention this phenomenon this week, because one could mistakenly interpret the blessings and curses in this week's parsha as an example of this foolishness.  Don't worry I'll soon give up wearing the lucky cap.

            A simple reading of the verses at the beginning of B'chokotai could lead one to believe that there is a straightforward relationship between mitzvah performance and rainfall in Israel.  Even those who do believe in a correlation between Jewish actions and the fertility of the country, assume that the relationship is very complex and not easily discerned by even careful observers.  It's not like I put on a Red Sox jersey and they then take the lead.  On the other hand fan support does ultimately have some affect on a team's success.  Fan reactions at a game can have a positive influence on an athlete.  It's one of the reasons given for the fact that statistically home teams out perform visiting teams.  Also, my support for a team increases their revenues, which helps the team acquire better talent.   So there is a connection.  It's just not simple or direct.       

But reasonable explanations aside, is our parsha suggesting something like what Einstein called spooky actions at a distance?  In physics, action at a distance is the interaction of two objects which are separated in space with no known mediator of the interaction.  I am now officially in over my head.  I'll just say that there is something called quantum entanglement, which describes objects affecting each other over great distances with no known reasons for these affects.  Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) seemed to say that this phenomenon works in the blessings and curses:  This is the way of the Torah: When a person's affairs are flourishing, and turn out successfully, then he looks at himself and comprehends that it is the result of God's kindness, not because of his own merit and his good deeds, as it is written, "Not by your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart." And when troubles and accidents happen to him, he should confess his sins to God and keep in mind that it is only because of his iniquities. He should not attribute it to chance (comment on Leviticus 26:21).

Now, I have trouble with this approach.  Not only does it seem a bit like the superstitious sports fan, but the thought that the entire world revolves around me and my actions seems a bit arrogant.  So, let's see if we can try to understand these verses in two ways.

First, I'd like to present the position of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmonides, 1194-1270).  He suggested the following idea:  "seeking medical treatment has become customary" (Berakhot 60a). If they were not accustomed to this, a person would be ill to the extent that the punishment for his sins weighed upon him, and he would be healed by God's will. But people have become accustomed to relying on human medicine, and so God leaves them to natural phenomena.  In other words the Ramban is explaining that even though we live lives dominated by natural concerns and activities, there will be a time and place when our fate is controlled by supernatural phenomena, and this section is describing that other future reality.

However, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion offers another point of view.  He suggests that the message in these blessings and curses isn't that all the events and circumstances around us are indeed the direct result of our spiritual behavior.  That scenario would present possibilities and events which would be impossible to fathom and figure.  One could go crazy trying to find the formula for how many mitzvoth bring a rain storm and how many sins result in drought and famine.  Then we'd go insane trying to factor in the behavior of others.  Instead Rav Lichtenstein presents a simple proposition.  He says, "The first option is to adopt a universally stringent approach. We do not presume to declare with certainty why some or other trouble has befallen us – whether it was our evil behavior or because of factors independent of us – but in any case of doubt we should be strict with ourselves and scrutinize our actions, lest they be the cause."  In other words we should live our lives constantly scrutinizing ourselves and our actions for imperfections.  Rabbi Lichtenstein doesn't say it specifically, but I would add, hopefully in the spirit of his idea, that this concept may only be used on ourselves.  We should never use these ideas as license to judge others.  Please, don't play God, but be strict with yourself.

Ultimately, I don't know the exact message in this section of blessings and curses, but I do believe that we can make two conclusions.  First, God does, on some level and in some time frame, periodically have some power over history.  And, secondly, and more importantly, our behavior in this world does count, and we should think about our actions very carefully.        


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