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Home » B'Chukotai

Bechukotai: Is G-d Vengeful?

Submitted by on May 16, 2011 – 12:24 amNo Comment | 1,226 views

Why So Exacting?

The first tenet of all religions is that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. Each religion explains it in its own way; each  trying to present G-d as merciful, not vengeful. Judaism takes a different track. Suffering, says Judaism, is not a punishment, but a consequence.

When G-d promises reward for good behavior He is playing the role of physician. My physician often reminds me that healthy habits result in good health and unhealthy habits, in illness. He is neither vengeful nor kind; he is simply laying out the facts.

G-d set up our world in a way that bestows success on those who follow His will and deprivation on those who don’t. Our sages have long taught that from the day G-d declared, “See, I place before you today blessing and curse,” neither good nor bad emerge from above. It is all self-regulated; wickedness is visited on those who do evil and goodness is bestowed upon those who do good. (1)

The Talmud relates a fascinating story about the pious sage Rabbi Chanina son of Dosa, who happened upon a panicked group of fleeing men trying to outrun a snake. Rabbi Chanina set his naked foot at the entrance to the snake’s lair and extracted a dead snake. He set the snake down before the people and taught, behold, the snake neither kills nor spares. Sin is the culprit. (2)

As one commentator put it, blaming G-d for ills visited upon us is like inserting our hand between the  running blades of a window fan and blaming the manufacturer . (3)

Precaution

Still we could blame the manufacturer for failing to install a protective guard around the circulating blades. An engineer that exposes a dangerous machine without taking appropriate precaution is liable for resultant injuries. In the same vein should we not blame G-d for placing us in the lap of temptations and claiming innocence when we slip up and commit a sin?

Here it is important to know that G-d has indeed installed a number of precautionary measures. He is constantly injecting us with strength to battle our temptation. Our sages taught that if not for the additional strength that G-d injects into us we would be powerless against temptation. It is true that sometimes we feel inept against the allure of sin, but every time we resolve firmly to avoid sin, G-d gives us the strength to succeed. G-d is not at fault for our sin; he installed a protective guard. We are at fault for failing to resolve. We fail to take advantage of the protective guard. (4)

Repentance

We have just presented G-d as a bystander to a system that self regulates, but we know this is not the case. We know that when we repent for bad behavior G-d forgives us and stays our punishment. This tells us that G-d is very much engaged. When He chooses to forgive He forgives and when He chooses to punish He punishes.

In truth though, even repentance is not an intervention from above, but part of an ongoing process. Let us return to the analogy of the physician. The physician’s role is not only to practice preventative medicine by teaching us how to adopt healthy lifestyle habits, but also to administer medicine when we adopt  unhealthy habits and fall ill.is god vengeful innerstream

Pardon results from repentance like healing results from medicine because repentance is indeed akin to medicine. The doctor is not in control of our health; we are. The doctor only prescribes the medication. If we choose to take it, nature runs its course and we heal. If we don’t, we don’t recover and we die. In the end the doctor does not heal us; we choose to be healed.

The same is true of repentance. G-d suggests repentance when we submit to temptation and sin. If we choose to repent, the sin is erased and its consequence reversed. G-d does not stay our punishment, our repentance does. In the end, this too is part of the system that G-d established. (5)

His Own Family

The last question is, does G-d care. Is G-d like a professional physician who repeats his dire warnings to a hundred patients a day or is He an involved patron invested in our well being?

The answer can be gleaned from the number of times that the Torah informs us of reward and punishment. The Torah is usually very precise and never wastes a word. Once the Torah informed us of the reward / punishment doctrine there should be no reason to repeat it again and again.

Unless of course G-d is like a doctor talking to his own children. When the doctor addresses a patient he is not personally invested. Of course he wants the patient to be healthy and will work to ensure it, but if the patient falls ill the doctor’s world won’t shatter. When the doctor speaks to his child he is personally invested; he doesn’t only inform; he pleads and begs. Remember, the doctor says, if you keep up your health you will be healthy and my world will be complete, but if you don’t you will fall ill and my world will shatter.

Our sages taught that G-d created the world for the sake of the Jew and the Torah. Our study of Torah and performance of the commandments sustains G-d’s world. As the Midrash put it, when the Jew reads the Torah, he does a Mitzvah for G-d’s world. When G-d encourages us to keep His commandments he is not only informing us of the consequences like a doctor does for a patient; he is literally pleading with us to do it. Our actions make a world of difference to Him. Our inaction shatters His world. (6)

As Old As The Hills

In case you were wondering, this wisdom is as old as Adam and Eve. Adam was asked, “Did G-d not cause your death?” Adam replied, No, I caused my own death.” So they asked, “Did G-d not cause it by punishing you for eating the wrong fruit?” Adam replied, “This is akin to a doctor who warns a patient not to eat unhealthy foods or he will die. If the patient eats the food and risks his life, is the doctor at fault? So too, G-d warned me to eat from this tree and not that tree or I might die, if I transgressed I am at fault.”

May we always be inspired to make healthy life style choices and may G-d shower us with blessing, happiness and success, all the days of our life. Amen. (7)

Footnotes

1. Devarim Rabbah 4: 3.
2. Babylonian Talmud, Brachos 33a.
3. Haamek Davar on Leviticus 26: 3 and Deuteronomy 32: 4.
4. Babylonian Talmud,Kiddushin 30b.
5. This is why the prophet (Isaiah 6:10) wrote, that one who repents will be healed. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Megilah: 17b) was very specific in its interpretation of this prophetic verse when it wrote that this verse refers not to a physical healing, but to one of pardon. Indeed, repentance is a medicine and the pardon it augurs is merely a form of healing.
6. Bereshis Rabbah 1:6 amd Devarim Rabbah 8:5.
7. Midrash Tehilim on chapter 92.

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