by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – January 1, 2010
On the first verse in the Torah section of VaYechi (the last section of Bereshit, the first book of the Torah), Rashi comments: “Why is this passage closed? Because once our forefather Jacob passed away, the eyes and heart of Israel were closed, because of the suffering of the enslavement, for the [Egyptians] began to enslave them.” From the point of Jacob’s passing, the enslavement of the people of Israel at the hands of the Egyptians initiated a long history of persecution and suffering at the hands of others.
Since ancient times, the children of Israel have encountered attacks and persecution. Even prior to the Israelites’ enslavement, the very own son of our forefather Jacob, Joseph, was set upon by his jealous and upset brothers and left in a pit to die and then removed only to be sold as a slave without concern for the great hardship or torture that Joseph may incur as a result of their actions. Then, for some 200 years, the people of Israel were enslaved and oppressed by the cruel Egyptians. Upon their escape from Egypt, the Israelites were ambushed by Amalek and his band of robbers and murderers. After receiving the Torah, Korach and a contingent of over 250 men rose up to find fault with and criticize the great Moses and his brother Aaron for the positions of leadership which G-d Himself bestowed upon them without any request on their parts for these positions. While wandering through the desert, the people of Israel were the focus of attention for Balak, the king of Moav, who sent for Bilam to curse them. After establishing sovereignty in the Land of Israel, the Israelites were the subjects of numerous attacks by the Philistines and other neighboring nations. Having destroyed the first Bet HaMikdash (Temple) in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar drove the Jews into exile. In the time of Mordechai and Esther, Haman gave orders “to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish all Jews, both young and old, little children and women (Esther 3:13).” Antiochus’ Seleucid empire as well as the Roman empire issued decrees forbidding Jews to study and practice the Torah and its laws. During the Crusades, fanatical Christians, while marching across Europe, massacred and burnt thousands of Jews. Again, in the 15th century, thousands of Jews were burned at the stake at the behest of Torquemada, head of the Christian priesthood, because of their refusal to forsake the Jewish faith. Similarly, in the 17th century, Chmelnitzki rode out at the head of his Cossack bands to liberate the Ukraine from Polish dominion, and, in the process, slaughtered 300,000 Polish Jews. In modern times, during World War II, six million Jews were annihilated in Nazi gas chambers and ovens and defenselessly shot down by Nazi guns. In 1948, immediately after the declaration of independence of the state of Israel, the five Arab states of Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iraq invaded the Land of Israel and attempted to drive its Jews into the sea. In 1956, Egyptian terrorists infiltrated Jewish towns and villages in Israel and murdered innocent civilians, which was one of the factors leading to the outbreak of the Sinai Campaign. Before the 1967 Six Day War, Egyptian President Nasser openly announced that the Jewish inhabitants of the Land of Israel were to be destroyed. In 1973, Israeli Jews were caught unawares by an Arab attack on the very holy day of Yom Kippur, and, in 1978, Israel was prompted to enter Lebanon to offset Arab terrorist attacks upon Jewish towns and villages on Israel’s northern border. And to this very day, anti-semitic groups engage in malicious propaganda, hatred and violent attacks against Jews throughout the world.
Especially following the disastrous holocaust in which six million Jews were massacred at the hands of the Nazis, the question has continually cropped up concerning G-d’s lack of intervention. This same G-d who leveled ten plagues upon the land of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, sent down manna from heaven, and cast a fire upon the altar of Elijah, stood by, as it were, while his people were being tortured and executed. Some, as a result, have even chosen to relinquish the belief in G-d’s existence and in the Torah.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5a, our Rabbis tell us, “If one sees troubles coming upon him, let him investigate his conduct…if he investigated and can find nothing, he should assign the cause to the neglect [of the study] of Torah…[and if one does not find this to be the cause] they are troubles of love.” If our troubles are as a result of misconduct, what misconduct are we guilty of; and if they are not a result of misconduct, where is the love?
G-d informs us, “It will come to pass, if you obey these laws [of the Torah] and you will keep and do them, then the L-rd your G-d shall keep unto you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you…You shall be blessed above all people” (Devarim 7:12-14). “All the commandments which I command you today, shall you observe to do so that you may live and multiply….for man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the L-rd does man live” (Devarim 8:1-3). “And now, Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d require of you, but to fear the L-rd your G-d to walk in all His ways and to love him” (Devarim 8:12). We are reminded to love and fear G-d and to follow in His ways and keep his commandments, whereby our lives will be truly fulfilled.
Above notwithstanding, G-d advises Moses at the end of Moses’ days on earth, “You shall sleep with your fathers and this people will rise up and will stray after the gods of the strangers of the land wherein they enter and will forsake Me and will break My covenant which I have made with them” (Devarim 31:16). G-d foresees that just as the Israelites engaged in the grave sin of the golden calf during Moses’ brief departure before G-d’s bestowal of the Ten Commandments and His Torah, so will this people sin again after Moses’ permanent departure.
During Moses’ lifetime, the people of Israel witnessed numerous explicit miracles. They witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea. They witnessed G-d’s personally bestowing the Ten Commandments and the Torah. Every day, except for the Sabbath, they witnessed the falling of manna from heaven. Nevertheless, throughout the period of the judges and of the first Bet HaMikdash (Temple), the Israelites would stray. They would forsake the true G-d and His holy Torah to be “like all the nations” (I Shmuel 8:5). Over the centuries, we, the recipients of the Torah, have veered time and again from the path paved for us by G-d. We have veered after hellenism, karaism and false messiahs. Ever since the Enlightenment, in which Jews were given the freedom and ease to assimilate, not a few, but droves of us in France, Germany, South and North America as well as in the Land of Israel have rushed to throw off the cloak of the Torah and its laws completely or in part. Throughout the Middle Ages, the laymen among us continually struggled to wrest authority from the hands of the rabbis, the upholders of our Jewish tradition. Even when we keep the Sabbath, eat kosher food, pray three times a day, affix the mezuzah to our doorpost and don teffilin, we tend to be lax in our relations to others. And we have oftentimes been guilty of practicing the Torah laws by rote, rather than exercising a conscious and intensive devotion to the path of G-d (see Yeshayah 29).
When his people sin, G-d informs Moses, “Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day and I will forsake them and I will hide my face from them and they shall be devoured and many evils and troubles shall befall them” (Devarim 31:17). When the people of Israel as a whole fail to act in a wholly righteous manner and stray from the path paved for us by G-d to that paved by other nations and cultures, G-d leaves us to the same whim and caprice of nature that guide other nations and cultures. As Egypt was invaded in 1730 BCE by the Hyksos, the kingdom of Israel was invaded in 722 BCE by the Assyrians. As the Babylonian empire was toppled in 1700 BCE, the kingdom of Judah was toppled in 586 BCE. As Greek and Macedonian forces conquered the entire Persian empire, so did they take control of the Land of Israel. As the Romans squashed the nations comprising the western and eastern Mediterranean, so did they tread upon the nation of Judea. When the Crusaders clashed with the Moslem, so did they attack the Jew. And when the onetime exemplar of Enlightenment, Germany, degenerated into a insecure, conceited and egotistic group of warmongers seeking scapegoats for their own shortcomings and problems, it singled out Slavs, singled out gypsies, and singled out Jews (albeit Jews were especially singled out).
But were there no truly righteous individuals who warranted divine intervention to save them from destruction? Our Sages tell us, “Once license is given to the destroyer, he does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 60a). To be sure, in the past, G-d has authored numerous miraculous events. In one case in particular, when the power-hungry Korach attempted to disrupt the harmony of the people of Israel by casting aspersions upon the pious and modest characters of Moses and Aaron, “The earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up and their houses and all those who followed Korach and all their possessions” (Bamidbar 16:32). However, the explicit and extraordinary miracles that marked the early years of the nation of Israel served to firmly and permanently establish and instill the Torah law and lore within the lives of the children of Israel and prevent the Torah’s becoming a forgotten page in world history. Once this was accomplished, it was left to us to exercise our free will to adopt the Torah way of life – a divinely inspired system which exclusively ensures immortal bliss. It was left to us to seek out the words of our ancient prophets and Sages or the intelligent and learned scholars of every generation as a function of our free will and its recognition of the Torah’s essential good. Forestalling pain to the righteous at the time of mass suffering by means of explicit miracles would foster infiltration within the Jewish people by individuals adopting the Torah way of life simply because of fear of punishment rather than for the inherent good of the Torah and, consequently, be destructive (see Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 24b). Moreover, the righteous recognize the relative insignificance of the physical side of our being and of material pursuits. The righteous among us are not even daunted in the face of physical persecution. They know that “the reward of a precept is the precept” (Avot 4:2). The very act of obeying the directive of G-d is beneficial. It serves to cultivate one’s soul and, thereby, promotes one’s eternal pleasure after death. In this light, physical persecution is not in the nature of evil to the righteous. For the righteous, physical pain merely serves to reconfirm their convictions. After the great sage R. Akiva was taken out for execution, while the Romans combed his flesh with iron combs, he recited the Shema and, thus, reaffirmed G-d’s rule over the world. When questioned concerning this, he explained that he always wished to fulfill the verse, “You shall love the L-rd your G-d…with all your soul” (Devarim 6:5), i.e. even if He takes your soul (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61a). R. Akiva saw in his murder the concretization in his mind of the fact that physical pleasure or pain is of little consequence in relation to the pleasure or pain of the spirit.
Does this mean we are to simply passively accept troubles or pain leveled upon us by others? Certainly not. G-d reminds us, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. Who met you in the way and smote your hindmost ranks, all who were feeble behind you, and you were faint and weary” (Devarim 25:17-18). Consequently, we are enjoined, “You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens; you shall not forget” (Devarim 25:19).
In his Contemporary Halakhic Problems (vol. 1, p.17), J.D. Bleich notes that “it is assumed that because population shifts have occurred and ancient peoples are no longer ethnically identifiable” the commandment to blot out the people of Amalek cannot be fulfilled. However, Maimonides states in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 5:4-5 “that the commandment to eradicate the seven Canaanite peoples has lapsed because of precisely these considerations but [Maimonides] fails to make a similar statement with regard to the people of Amalek.” In resolution of this discrepancy, Judah Gershuni quotes a comment attributed to R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (see Torah she-Baal Peh annual of 5731 and Or ha-Mizrah, Tevet 5731). R. Chaim is purported to have said that the precept to annihilate Amalek does not extend only to genealogical descendants of that ancient people but includes all who embrace the ideology of Amalek and seek to destroy the people of Israel.
The nation of Amalek – Arab Jew-haters, neo-Nazi groups and anti-semitic cliques the world over – engages in heartless, cruel and merciless attacks upon innocent Jewish individuals who never harmed nor sought to harm them. These same groups who comprise the nation of Amalek inevitably instruct those close to them in the same bigoted notions and behavior, notions and behavior which spell mortal danger for all the people of Israel wherever they may reside. This danger, G-d advises us, must be eliminated and defended against.
And G-d – even if not by means of explicit miracles – assists us against our adversaries. When Jacob’s son, Joseph, was sold by his brothers as a slave, G-d did not forget him. “The L-rd was with Joseph and he was a prosperous man” (Bereshit 39:2). Finally, against all odds and after some period of time and much anguish, “Pharaoh said unto Joseph, ‘See I have set you over all the land of Egypt'” (Bereshit 41:41). “And there was hunger in all the lands, but [thanks to Joseph] in all the land of Egypt there was food….And Joseph’s ten brothers came down to buy corn in Egypt….And Joseph was the governor over the land…and Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down before him with their faces to the earth” (Bereshit 41:54-42:6). The once dominant, established and secure brothers of Joseph had been reduced to paupers begging for food from the once young and vulnerable Joseph, now governor of the whole land of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. G-d took account of the brothers’ vengeful cruelty to Joseph and had repaid them in kind. Likewise, Egyptian slave-masters were drowned and their Israelite slaves gained sovereignty in their own land. The bloodthirsty Amalekites were overcome by their exhausted and weak Israelite victims. Cruel Greek hellenizers were conquered by their oppressed victims, the Hasmoneans and their Jewish followers. The great Roman empire which persecuted Jews for practicing Judaism was eventually destroyed but their victims managed to establish academies whose products, the Talmud and its commentaries, live to this day. Christians who orchestrated blood libels and the like against Jews were forced eventually to answer to the Rothchilds and Montefiores. And Nazi murderers fell to oblivion and their Jewish targets have established their own state and are again thriving throughout the world.
Although, we may, as a result of iniquity, be left to the caprice of nature, G-d never forgets us. Throughout the ages, there have been many Joseph’s among us who have been cruelly dealt with by their brothers. But G-d keeps a record and eventually helps the Joseph’s overcome and succeed and reduces the oppressors to nothingness. And, whether we are helped or not, forsaken or not, we are still in possession of a special treasure – the Torah, its laws and its lore – whose significance has not changed since its inception. Only by following the path of the Torah can we enjoy true happiness in this world, and only by following the path of the Torah can we assure eternal spiritual happiness in the world to come.