The Suffering of the Jewish People is Evidence of Providence

Behold, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. (Devarim 11:26)

The Talmud, in Mesechet Ketubot, relates a tragic incident that occurred after the destruction of the Temple. Raban Yochanan ben Zakai and his students were traveling from Yerushalayim. The group came upon a poor woman. In order to sustain herself, she was searching the droppings of animals for undigested kernels of grain. Upon seeing Raban Yochanan ben Zakai, the woman rose and asked him for charity. The two entered into a conversation. It was soon discovered that this impoverished beggar was the daughter of Nakdimon ben Guryon. This man had been one of the most wealthy and respected citizens of Yerushalayim. With the destruction of Yerushalayim, the family had lost everything. The once indulged daughter was reduced to the most desperate poverty.

Raban Yochanan ben Zakai proclaimed, “Happy are you, Yisrael. When you fulfill the will of Hashem, no nation has power over you. And when you do not fulfill the will of Hashem, you are delivered into the hands of the lowest nation. You are even delivered to the animals of this nation.”[1]

Raban Yochanan ben Zakai was clearly contrasting the previous glory of the Jewish people with the remarkable ravages that followed the Churban – the destruction of the Temple. He also explained that the fate of the nation is determined by obedience to Hashem. If the Torah is observed, no nation, regardless of its power, can subjugate Bnai Yisrael. If the Torah is disregarded, Bnai Yisrael becomes the lowliest of nations. The difficulty with Raban Yochanan ben Zakai’s statement is that he introduces it as a happy tiding. He tells us we should be pleased to discover both the heights to which we can rise and the depths to which we can fall. It is encouraging to know that we can achieve remarkable success. But the assurance that our downfall will be equally extreme seems less of a cause for happiness.

An understanding of Raban Yochanan ben Zakai’s attitude emerges from a study of the opening of the parasha. Moshe tells the people that they will be subject to a blessing and curse. The blessing will be the result of observing the Torah. It will encompass every essential form of material wealth and well-being. The curse is a consequence of disregarding the commands. It will be a terrible curse of astounding proportions. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno points out that this blessing and curse have an important implication. Other nations may experience periods of success and advancement. At other times these nations may suffer disappointments and decline. But both the advancement of a nation and its decline is usually gradual. Change occurs slowly and with moderation. However, Bnai Yisrael is subject to sudden and extreme changes – extreme success or extreme persecution and suffering.[2] Jewish history is characterized by this pattern of ever-changing extremes.

Why does the condition of the Jewish people tend to these extremes? Other nations are generally governed by natural law.[3] Natural causes do not often produce extremes. As a result, unless confronted with an unusual catastrophe, most nations experience gradual progress and decline. The condition of the Jewish people is controlled by Hashem. He determines our condition and well-being based upon our behavior. His control over nature is complete. When Hashem rewards His people, there is no limit to the blessings He can bestow. His punishment can also be profound. The magnitude of our success and even our sufferings is indicative of Hashem’s influence.

Now, the meaning of Raban Yochanan ben Zakai’s statement is clear. The astonishing downfall of the Jewish people was a consequence of the special relationship enjoyed with the Creator. Punishment is not pleasant. However, it does reflect this important bond between Hashem and His people. Raban Yochanan ben Zakai is teaching that even in times of terrible national suffering we can receive comfort. The magnitude of the suffering reflects our special relationship with Hashem.

When there will arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams and he will perform for you a sign or a wonder. (Devarim 13:2)

This pasuk introduces the laws concerning a false prophet. This is a person who claims to be a prophet and seemingly proves his claim through performing a wondrous sign. The supposed prophet commands the people to worship idols or contradicts the Torah. This person is a false prophet and is condemned to death.

Maimonides discusses this section of the Torah at length. In this discussion, he deals with some very important issues. Maimonides explains that the Torah created a means through which a prophet is authenticated. He explains that there are two methods. The first is through the performance of a wondrous sign.[4] The second method is though prediction of future events. A person who proves capable of consistently predicting the future is deemed to an authentic prophet.[5] Maimonides explains that neither of these methods is applied in isolation. The claimant must be an individual fit for prophecy. This requires that the person be learned, wise and moral.[6] A person who meets these requirements and also authenticates himself is deemed to be a true prophet. We are commanded to obey this prophet.[7]

Much of Maimonides’ discussion deals with a fundamental question. The false prophet is an individual who seems to meet all of the qualifications of a true prophet. Yet, because this claimant commands the people to disobey the Torah he is renounced and put to death. This suggests an important question. Presumably, this false prophet has met all of the requirements for authentication but we are commanded to disregard his directions and instead execute him for his crime. This means that Torah clearly concedes that wondrous signs can be misleading. The false prophet performed these signs. Yet, this individual is a fraud! How can these same inconclusive indications prove the authenticity of the true prophet?

Maimonides provides an insightful response. The Torah does not regard any wonder as an infallible sign of the prophet’s authenticity. Wonders can be fabricated. We do not follow the prophet because these signs prove authenticity. So, why do we obey a prophet who has performed wonders? This is because the Torah commands us to obey. In order to understand Maimonides’ perspective an analogy will be helpful. The Torah commands us to decide legal matters on the basis of testimony provided by a pair of witnesses. The Torah also provides us with laws for the punishment of false witnesses. These laws acknowledge the possibility that a pair of witnesses can successfully conspire to mislead the court. Testimony is not an infallible form of evidence! Why do we rely on testimony? The answer is that we do not rely on testimony because we assume it is infallible. Instead, we decide the matter on the basis of testimony because the Torah commands us to accept this standard. Similarly, we acknowledge that the signs of the prophet are not perfect evidence of authenticity. We accept these signs because we are so instructed by the Torah.

We can now resolve our question. A prophet does not provide infallible proof of authenticity. The claimant is obeyed only because the Torah commands us in obedience. The false prophet denies the Torah. This individual commands us to disobey the Torah. This command undermines the claimant’s very authenticity. We only accept signs and wonders as sources of authentication because of the Torah. If the Torah is false – as this supposed prophet claims, then the claimant’s wonders are meaningless. Without the Torah, there is no basis for accepting the commands of this false prophet.[8]

[1] Mesechet Ketubot 66b.
[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 11:30.
[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 4:19.
[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 7:7.
[5] Rav Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 10:1-2.
[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 7:7.
[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 7:7.
[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 7:10.