Parashat Ki Tavo: Suffering & Happiness, Mercy & Justice

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30 Aug 2007

Parashat Ki Tavo 5767

Part One: Happy in the Struggle

The month of Elul is replete with indicators to arouse us to the fact that soon we will be standing before the ultimate court which will audit our actions, thoughts and fantasies.

Selichot, the chapter of Le’david, Hashem Ori ve’yish’ey and hearing the shofar daily are all intended to awaken us from the spiritual slumber into which the lullabies of life have anesthetized us.

A while ago, I experienced a spiritual jolt which permeated my consciousness. I was driving towards the neighborhood of Ge’ula with my wife, when suddenly on one of the walls, we saw an obituary notice in big black letters – with my name on it. My wife was aghast, and in an attempt to lighten the moment I said, “So who is driving the car?”

The notice itself was nothing more than a curiosity for me, but what I saw next made a profound impression. A young boy on a bicycle passed the announcement and after him a woman pushing a baby carriage, and then some teenagers coming from school. All of them were totally oblivious to the obituary announcement, as they continued on their ways. It was as if, for the passersby, the man whose demise was announced did not die and, in fact, had never been born.

Our parsha begins with the words “Ve Ha’ya ki tavo el ha’aretz” – And when it shall come to pass that you will enter into the land.” Or Hachaim in Beraysheet chapter 27 states that the word Ve’ha’ya comes to introduce a happy occurrence, as indeed coming into the land was for the Jewish Nation.

But this is problematic in the light of the gemara in Brachot 5a, which says that three things are acquired only through hardship: Olam Haba (the next world), Torah, and Eretz Yisrael.

On the one hand, the Torah uses the term “ve’haya” signifying happiness when entering the land of Israel, while the gemara states that Eretz Yisrael is one of the three gifts which are acquired only through suffering. Are not suffering and happiness incompatible?

Think of the first men who succeeded in conquering Mount Everest – Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay. At a kilometer before the peak, the lungs strain and gasp in desperation for air. At 8000 meters, enormous effort is required just to raise your leg, and every muscle in the body aches for lack of oxygen. But in the exhilaration of doing what no man has ever achieved, the physical suffering yields to the enormity of the moment and changes the state of pain into a triumphal challenge.

Or the pangs which are part of giving birth, as severe as they may be, are endured in the woman’s knowledge that soon she will have brought a child into the world.

Or a soldier of Tzahal in Lebanon a year ago, who – hungry and tired after 24 hours of fighting, his entire body covered with dirt and perspiration, smelling from gun-powder and smoke, ducking the whining bullets centimeters over his head, surrounded with death and suffering – is now entrusted with the gruelling task of taking out an enemy entrenched in underground bunkers which have been built without interference for six years. At this moment, he looks southward to the lights of the kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel, and suddenly the difficulties assume a new aspect. No longer are they hated realities which drain his body and mind. They become the lifeline which is saving his people from annihilation, and the pain becomes an ideal.

Suffering and happiness are compatible when they are forging a colossal achievement.

When the goal is attained the difficulties are forgotten. At the moment of ascending the highest peak in the world, the two men no longer think about the coffee pot lost in base camp number two; the mother now holding her just born child does not think of the difficulties she endured moments before; and when victory is his, the soldier does not consider the spent cartridges left on the ground.

Our parsha is teaching us that although Eretz Yisrael is acquired through unrelenting, persistent challenges and pain, it is this very pain which creates the sense of happiness and permits us to persevere and continue. And when our historical goals will have been attained, the suffering of the ages will turn into entities of joy.

We all have 120 years to prove to God that it was worth His while to create us, while suffering in patience with our shortcomings and delighting in the several triumphs we might achieve. Hashem suffers in patience with our shortcomings, yet He delights in our triumphs. We must emulate these two apparently contradictory states. We Jews have suffered in silence for two thousand years, because we were aware of our shortcomings. Yet we must find solace and delight in the struggle to maintain our survival in this ominous and dangerous world.

At the end of our time in this life, which will be announced through a notice on the wall, we will have justified our sojourn in this world if we can look back over a life of devotion to the Torah and its precepts – if we will have participated in the superhuman effort to restore our people to our home land while not straying from Hashem’s holy Torah.

In the future, a boy will ride his bicycle, a woman will push her baby carriage and the laughter of teenagers returning from school will fill the air – and the notices with our names will be covered over with other notices. But through our efforts we will have acquired the three gifts of God: Olam Haba, Torah and Eretz Yisrael in joy and simcha.

Part Two: Mercy and Justice

Rav Nachman of Braslav zt”l said, “Man is the universe in miniature, and the universe is as a colossal Man.

This concept becomes increasingly real as the “Days of Awe” approach, when our thoughts roam between ourselves as individuals standing before the infinite Creator and the larger picture of where is Hashem leading us as Jews and as part of humanity.

Now, since each individual before Hashem is a singular, separate, entire universe, there is one question common to us all as human beings – where is Hashem leading humanity? And as Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, the question is more acute in view of the pasuk, “The land where the eyes of God are present from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”

Where indeed is Hashem leading us?

The third bracha of birkat hamazon (‘rachem’) ends with a blessing to Hashem for His eventual rebuilding of Yerushalayim, and in its wider context all of Eretz Yisrael.

ברוך את ה בונה ירושלים אמן
The word in the bracha “be’ra’cha’mav’ (through His compassion) is a point of contention between the Shulchan Aruch (R. Yosef Karo) and the Rama (R. Moshe Isrelles) in Orach Chaim chap. 188,4.

The Shulchan Aruch says that the word should be omitted, hence the bracha is

ברוך אתה ה בונה ירושלים אמן
Rama includes the word, so the bracha reads

ברוך אתה ה בונה ברחמיו ירושלים אמן
The reasons will be explained later; but unless these two rabbinic giants were also prophets, they could not have known the ramifications of their respective opinions.

For now, let’s talk about Hashem’s ‘rachmanut’ (compassion).

Does Hashem have compassion for people? Ask the 250,000 killed by the last tsunami, or the more than 1000 killed by “Katrina” and those who will yet die at the hands of other “natural” disasters. This, of course, is the “small change,” with the big ones such as the Shoah and essentially all of Jewish history as a challenge to Hashem’s compassion.

But let’s think for a moment.

What makes us, as people, act the way we do? Firstly, there is the element of logic inherent in human beings. When A happens, the logical sequence is to do B. When one burns his hand, the thing to do is to cool the area.

We are also moved by feelings of pity and compassion. Were it not for these inherent traits, there would be no charity, no hospitals, no orphanages or homes for the elderly. Logic, pity, compassion, love, revenge, hate, ambition etc., are all essential parts of what we call “human nature.” And these are the things which make us get out of bed in the morning and also prevent us from kicking little puppies in the street.

The big question is: What makes Hashem act in the way He does?

If you say “logic” activates Hashem, then logic is God and God is number two. If you say “rachmanut,” then rachmanut is God; because the fundamental definition of Hashem is that He is the “prime mover”, the ultimate of all things. But if rachmanut and/or logic “move” Hashem, then they are the ultimate!

The truth is that all these attributes – logic, love, compassion etc. – are all creations of Hashem, and He is beyond every entity in existence. Hashem’s essence contains none of these things, and what His true essence is goes beyond our ability to even speculate.

Now, pity and compassion are not His essence, but rather they are tools Hashem created with which to relate to the physical world. At times He wills to act with compassion, and at other times He wills to act as the One who implements harsh judicial decrees. He is, for us human beings, unpredictable. For if we could understand Hashem, then we would be His equal.

Let’s return to the discussion between the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama.

Yosef Karo states that the word be’ra’cha’mav not be recited when mentioning the rebuilding of Yerushalayim and Eretz Yisrael; for the return of His people will not be an act of rachamim (mercy or compassion) but an act of justice – an occurrence determined by what is historically and judicially right. As the navi says (Yisha’yahu 1,27) “Zion will be redeemed in justice (virtue, rectitude, righteousness).”

Rama claims that the preferred reading includes the word “rachamim,” as the prophet Zecharia says regarding the eventual rebuilding of the bet hamikdash in Yerushalayim (1,16) “I shall return to Yerushalayim with compassion and shall build there my house.”

Who is correct, the Shulchan Aruch or the Rama?

Little could they have known (unless they were prophets) that both would eventually be correct.

Initially, Hashem willed to use the “tool” of the Rama’s rachamim, as in the prophecy of Zecharia when He returned His people to Eretz Yisrael 59 years ago. But He later abandoned that “tool” replacing it with R. Yosef Karo’s “tool” of justice. And here in this “simple” formula lies the entire history of our people at this time.

At the close of World War II, we were 6,000,000 less than we were at its inception, and there were over half a million unwanted refugees languishing in the DP camps of Europe.

The United Nations was established and the dominant issue brought before it was the creation of an independent Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. A spirit of rachamim descended on the nations of the world. The Soviet Union and most of the communist block voted together with the USA in favor of creating the Jewish state. Incredible as it may be, many Catholic countries of South America voted for a Jewish State. Never would the nations of the world be so forthcoming to the Jews as they were at that moment in history.

It was an “ayt rachamim” (a moment of mercy) from on high which filled the hearts of these cynical and usually anti-Semitic diplomats with pity for the Jewish nation, as two thirds raised their hands in agreement to permit this downtrodden people a little “pillow” on which to rest their weary heads.

But pity, compassion and rachamim are shaky foundations on which to establish a nation. Pity can turn to cruelty; compassion to vindictiveness; rachamim to political manipulation. Rachamim is also degrading for one who is need of it. If rachamim is degrading for one who is indigent, how much more so for a princely nation.

So, our Father in Heaven abandoned the “tool” of rachamim and decreed that from that time on the claim of the Jewish people over the holy land would be one of justice, virtue, rectitude and righteousness. He decreed that we should now sacrifice and struggle for the land if we wished to retain her. No more pity. From now on, forces whose one aim was to throw us into the sea, would converge on the tiny settlement called “Medinat Yisrael” in an ocean of hatred. We have fought six wars in sixty years. We have fought the Arabs. We have fought the Russians. The world has prepared six eulogies for the gallant State of Israel, and six times they were torn and thrown into the dustbin of history. Our deed to the land is the Torah and the price we have paid is the blood of our people spilled in defending our right to live here.

At the close of this year in our history, we have again sacrificed for Eretz Yisrael. We can now, with a clear conscience, pray to Hashem that he retake the tool of rachamim which He put aside. We have proven to Him that Zion has been rebuilt with the justice of Yeshayahu, and now the time of Zecharia has come to rebuild the Temple in rachamim.

As Moshe Rabbeinu says in our parsha: (27,19) “And to place you above all the nations which Hashem has made, that you be shall be praised, revered and glorified and to be a holy people for the Lord your God, as He has promised.

Ketiva v’chatima Tova, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.