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Parashat Ki Tavo

September 14, 2011

By Rabbi Jaron Matlow


Lately I have been focusing on Theodicy, the problem of evil in the world. Over the last several years, I have experienced a number of health issues that left me on total disability. In Parashat Ekev, we are told that if we follow God s Torah, God  œwill remove all sickness from you  (Deut. 7:15). God states further  œI am your Healer  (Exodus 15:26). So naturally I ask myself the question,  œIf I m suffering all these things, am I being punished, and given the suffering of others, are they being punished? Have we not followed Torah and Halakha sufficiently? 

Our Parashah, Ki Tavo, is noted for the Tokhehot, the warnings and curses, if we don t follow Torah. In it we find Yak kha YHVH bishhin Mitzrayim uvat horim uvagarav uvehares asher lo tukhal l heirafei. Yak kha YHVH b shiga on u v ivaron u v timhon leivav,  œGod will strike you with Egyptian boils, hemorrhoids, scabs, and eruptive itches from which you will not heal. God will strike you with madness, blindness and stupefaction  (Deut. 28:27-8).

I don t think anyone who suffers experiences this entire list. Yet this hits close to home. These curses, as with the majority of curses in Torah, are based on abandonment of God, of idolatry, and of neglecting the needs of the less fortunate. I try to follow Torah, and help others in need, and I m certainly am not an idolater. If so, why do I and all others in our world suffer such illness and misery?

Our Parashah this year is bracketed by September 11 one week before and Rosh HaShanah two weeks hence. As we contemplate our lives during the past year, and where we want to be in the coming year, this hits home. Our process of Heshbon HaNefesh, of introspection and examination, leads us to wondering, why, if we have done a pretty good job, are we suffering so much? Sure, we aren t perfect, but we certainly have not dropped to the level depravity detailed in the Torah.

The Hafetz Hayim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan writes, in his introduction to Shemirat HaLashon, Guarding our Speech,  œIn the end of the days of the Second Temple, senseless hatred and evil speech overcame us, in our great sins. Because of this, the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our Land.  Surely we haven t been that evil. Yet we suffer!

If our course in this world is tied to our own actions and we make our own fortunes, how can we understand sickness and suffering in our world as punishment for sin? How do we find comfort from the losses that we mourn every year, and those new ones that we suffer?

My personal theology is that God does not directly control the world, the way the biblical God does. Rather God manifests through opportunity. We are given free will, to choose to do good or evil. We must force ourselves to take the opportunities to do the right thing, whether it be a ritual law or a social issue. By choosing to effect this tikkun, this repairing of the damage, we are accepting our responsibility to God and to humankind  “ we ARE accepting Jewish law on a voluntary basis. At the same time, we come to understand that sickness and suffering are not Divine punishment, but simply the course of human nature.

So, if all this suffering is just the course of human nature, how do we find God in this? Dr. David Hartman, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, writes,  œI therefore do not accept that all of history embodies an inscrutable form of divine justice. The tragic is present in human life because contingency and the possibility of suffering are intrinsic to it.  (A Living Covenant, 1997, p. 268). He continues, observing that  œNot everything that occurs in human history and in nature expresses the moral judgment of a personal god. 

In other words, God is there, but God is not causing our suffering directly. Nonetheless, we need to take responsibility for our actions. This leads back to Heshbon HaNefesh, as we go through this Penitential Season.

What does Heshbon HaNefesh really mean, if we are making our own way? While the course of nature is not directly orchestrated by God, God is still there. If God wasn t, then most of us at AJR, who come to become Klei Kodesh, or Holy Servants would be wasting our time. We know God is there. Therefore, Heshbon HaNefesh means that we need to make our way to God, and help others find their way back to God. That is what the month of Elul is all about.



Rabbi Jaron Matlow, ordained at AJR in 2009, is a retired Navy officer and veteran on total disability. He is currently the volunteer spiritual advisor for Congregation B nai Torah, Olympia WA, and also volunteers as a veteran advocate and pastoral counselor at the Olympia WA Disabled American Veterans office.