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Parashat Devarim 5783

A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim and Shabbat Hazon

July 17, 2023
by Rabbi Ira J. Dounn (’17)

There’s a lot in our tradition that is difficult to accept.

One of the concepts that seems especially not to square with our lived experience is the theology of Divine reward and punishment. It’s hard to reconcile for me, for many in the Jewish community, and for many of the students I work with. The haftarah that we’ll read on this Shabbat Hazon sums it up well:

אִם־ תֹּאב֖וּ וּשְׁמַעְתֶּ֑ם ט֥וּב הָאָ֖רֶץ תֹּאכֵֽלוּ׃

וְאִם ־תְּמָאֲנ֖וּ וּמְרִיתֶ֑ם חֶ֣רֶב תְּאֻכְּל֔וּ כִּ֛י פִּ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה דִּבֵּֽר

If you are willing and obey, you will eat the best of the land.

But if you refuse and disobey, you will be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of G-d spoke. (Isaiah 1:19-20)

This is just not true. It’s hard to imagine, frankly, that it was ever true. But in the decades after the Holocaust, it seems especially impossible to believe. Worse, it’s offensive. Because the argument for it to be true would be that the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust “refused and disobeyed,” and therefore got their comeuppance. There are not many people in my circle even willing to consider such a problematic idea.

You know, of all the content I learned at AJR during my years of study, the text that I pull out and show students the most comes from Professor Lenny Levin’s Modern Jewish Philosophy workbook. It’s in the Holocaust Theology unit and it outlines 10 different theological responses, four rational and six existential, to the Holocaust. It’s because the theology that we have around Divine reward and punishment – and specifically around suffering – has failed us and we’re groping for something more acceptable.

There are many examples of this: The Reform Movement has entirely omitted the second paragraph of the Shema and half of the third paragraph in its liturgy. Why include a section of Torah that we don’t think is true?

Or the story of Elisha ben Avuya and the father and son in Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1. The father tells the boy to go up a ladder and shoo away the mother bird. Of course, the only two mitzvot in the Torah that promise longevity are “kibud av v’em” (honoring your father and mother) and “shiluah hakein” (shooing away the mother bird). And right after obeying both of these commandments, the son falls off the ladder and passes away. Clearly Divine reward and punishment doesn’t work. Unable to square the theology, Elisha ben Avuya has no choice but to throw out the entire tradition. It’s as though one of the foundational arguments collapsed and brought down the entire edifice with it.

The theme of Divine reward as having an abundance of food is also found, intuitively, in birkat hamazon (grace after meals):

נַ֤עַר ׀ הָיִ֗יתִי גַּם־ זָ֫קַ֥נְתִּי וְֽלֹא ־רָ֭אִיתִי צַדִּ֣יק נֶעֱזָ֑ב וְ֝זַרְע֗וֹ מְבַקֶּשׁ־ לָֽחֶם׃

I have been young and am now old, and I have never seen a righteous man abandoned, and his children begging for bread. (Psalms 37:25)

On the face of it, this verse seems to suggest that everyone who is on the streets begging for bread is getting their comeuppance. And again, this is an offensive and problematic concept.

The Chabad version of birkat hamazon omits the verse entirely. Just when you thought it was only the progressive communities that omit liturgy they don’t like…

But along comes the brilliant Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l and reads the verse differently. He reads it, instead, as a call to action: Let us create a world in which we will never see a righteous person abandoned and their children begging for bread. When it’s read that way, it’s even more powerful at the end of birkat hamazon. It’s saying: Now that you’ve eaten and are satiated, go make sure the people around you who are hungry get something to eat too.

And ultimately, even though it may still be inadequate, that’s how I approach moments like Shabbat Hazon, Tisha B’Av, and the theology of reward and punishment. I look at it as a call to action to help the most vulnerable in our society. As a reminder that there are so many people suffering, and it’s one of our most sacred duties to try to alleviate their suffering as much as possible.

Our ancestors were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. Our ancestors perished in Holocaust. We know what it’s like to suffer. We may not have an answer to why bad things happen to good people, or why there are such awful atrocities in the world. And we certainly cannot say that such suffering is part of a Divine approach to reward and punishment. But we can unambiguously try our best to help those in need.

And there’s nothing difficult to accept about that.
Rabbi Ira J. Dounn is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Center for Jewish Life – Princeton Hillel. He was ordained from AJR in 2017, and lives with his wife and children in Highland Park, NJ. He can be reached at [email protected].