Path of Cruelty

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 12, 2015

We read in the Torah portion of Bechukotai (Vayikra 26:27-28), “If…you behave toward Me with casualness.  I will behave toward you with a fury of casualness.”  Regarding this verse, Rambam (a.k.a. Maimonides) elaborates in his Mishne Torah (Hilkhot Taaniyot 1:1-3): “It is a positive precept in the Torah to cry out and sound the trumpets for any misfortune that befalls the community… And this is a means of repentance, for when misfortune arises and they will cry out over it and sound the trumpets, all will realize that it is a result of their wrongful actions that bad tidings came on them…and this will cause the misfortune to leave them.  However, if they will not cry out…but, rather, they will say that this is an act of nature …it is a path of cruelty that causes them to continue their wrongful actions and this misfortune will bring more…which is what is written, ‘You behave toward Me with casualness.  I will behave toward you with a fury of casualness,’ i.e. ‘When I will bring upon you misfortune so that you shall repent and you will say it is happenstance, I will increase upon you a fury of such happenstance.’”

In his Outlooks & Insights, p. 164, R. Zev Leff questions why Rambam refers to this practice of attributing misfortune to chance acts of nature as a “path of cruelty” rather than calling it heresy.

To answer his question, R. Leff points out another statement of Rambam (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 12:1,5) wherein he describes the time of the Messiah as one in which the world will follow its natural course and no changes will occur in nature.  Moreover, Rambam states, there will be no famine or war, no jealousy nor competition and luxuries will be abundant.  In addition, there will be no sickness and people will live for hundreds of years.

Concerning this last statement of Rambam, R. Leff asks: How can Rambam both say that no changes will occur in nature at the time of the Messiah and at the same time describe a world so different from our own?

Apparently, R. Leff suggests Rambam is telling us that our world as we see it now is really not natural.  The real natural world, intended by G-d, is the one described by Rambam.

“Imagine,” R. Leff notes, “a hospital for crippled people which hires others in wheelchairs for every position: the doctors, nurses, maintenance personnel are all cripples.  A crippled child born in that hospital, who never ventured out of its premises, would grow up thinking that the natural state of man is to be confined to a wheelchair.  Upon meeting a person who could walk freely, he would assume that he was witnessing something supernatural.”

Similarly, R. Leff opines, the Garden of Eden was “the original blueprint for the world.  Due, however, to Adam and Chavah’s sin, the tragedies and calamities that we view today as natural became commonplace.  To us the original state of nature seems supernatural, and the world of imperfection and misery natural.”

R. Leff continues that G-d is “a G-d of kindness, and His sole intention in creating the world was to bestow everlasting good upon man.  His real desire is to provide man with the ideal environment within which to earn the World to Come.”  When one sins, G-d brings him misfortune “to awaken him to repent and to atone for his sin.  Misfortune and calamity are thus functions of G-d’s mercy.”

R. Leff concludes, “If, however, one views human suffering as the result of chance, purposeless events, G-d becomes, in his eyes, not a kind, benevolent Creator, but a cruel One Who created a world full of needless, meaningless suffering. “  This is why Rambam sees this behavior as a “path of cruelty.”

May we all veer away from the “path of cruelty,” and think about the messages that G-d is sending us and, thereby, correct our ways so that we can enjoy G-d’s bounty as He intended for us.  And may we, in this way, hasten the arrival of the days of the Messiah, as described by Rambam, when we will enjoy nature as it truly was meant to be.