An Exception to Human History
Translated from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Judaism differs from other religions in many ways. The Judaic concept of reward-and-punishment is no exception. Other religions promise their adherents rewards after death in another world that nobody has ever come back from to tell us about. Instead, claims Judaism, keep the Torah and your life will get better right now!
“If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your bread to satiety, and you will dwell securely in your land. I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you; I will cause wild beasts to withdraw from the land, and a sword will not cross your land. You will pursue your enemies; and they will fall before you by the sword. Five of you will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand; and your enemies will fall before you by the sword” (Leviticus 26:3-8): These promises aren’t talking about another world! These claims can be tested and verified right here on earth.
Moshe (Moses) didn’t doubt that. He knew that the words of the Torah would not fall flat on their faces. Keeping the miztvos (commandments) was capable of bringing about rain, fulfillment, peace, and power. He knew that if the Jewish People were to “follow (the Almighty’s) decrees”, these things would become a way of life for the Jewish People in their land.
But the Torah’s promises go further, and the other side of the coin sounds a lot different: “But if you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments; if you consider My decrees loathsome, and if your being rejects my ordinances, so as not to perform all My commandments, so that you annul My covenant – then I will do the same to you; I will assign upon you panic, swelling lesions, and burning fever, which cause eyes to long and souls to suffer; you will sow your seeds in vain, for your enemies will eat it. I will turn My attention against you, you will be struck down before enemies; those who hate you will subjugate you – you will flee with no one pursuing you… Your strength will be spent in vain; your land will not give its produce and the tree of the land will not give its fruit” (ibid 14-20).
Though these two sets of promises depict very different circumstances, both revolve around a single axis: the Jewish People’s national dependence on their moral aptitude. And though this section of the Torah talks only about the Jewish People’s obligations in this regard, these truths have historically applied to other peoples as well. The prophets in later sections of the Torah discuss the ethical demands made on gentile nations at length – as well as the dire consequences of shirking off those demands. The Great Flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the destructions of Assyria and Babylon had all marked significant historical turning points in human history. Regardless of the military or economic prowess amassed by nations, today we can see clearly how the moral fabric of a people determines the long-term survival or termination of their society.
Though opinions may change, rules of etiquette may be altered, and superstitions rise and fall, the rule of moral truth remains etched on the scrolls of eternity. Every falsely spoken word, every violent act, and every decision blinded by lust or arrogance will one day demand recompense. Though injustice and deceit may live out hale and hearty existences on this earth, judgment eventually comes knocking, whether through the French Revolution that threw down rulers apathetic to the grinding of the poor beneath their golden heels, or through other terrible upheavals destined to replace those abusing their seat of power. History has confirmed the Torah’s declaration that it is moral choice that ultimately determines the rise and fall of nations. Long before modern history had taken place, Torah had warned us to guard our behavior for reasons including, but not limited to, our immortal soul.
Were this section of the Torah to conclude with this message, we would be well enough impressed, but the Torah goes on. Torah explains that when gentile nations fail to internalize the directives of their moral compass, their society falls into ruin and ceases to exist. However, adds the Torah, the punishment when Israel fails to internalize the directives of the Torah is not destruction but exile: “And you, I will scatter among the nations, I will unsheathe the sword after you; your land will be desolate and your cities will be a ruin” (ibid 33-39). The exile of the nation is paralleled by the state of exile entered into by the land: “I will lay your city in ruins and I will make your sanctuaries desolate… I will make the land desolate; and your foes who dwell upon it will be desolate” (ibid 31-32).
This promise of the Torah has also played out openly. When the Jews were exiled from their land, Israel fell into a state of barrenness. The exile of the nation and the exile of the land run along two parallel tracks that will meet in the future. The period while Israel is in exile will see the land of Israel in a state of exile as well, meeting any other nation coming to dwell within her borders as a barren woman, without any lushness or blossoming to speak of.
The land’s barrenness is her way of remaining loyal to her true “husband”, the Jewish People. She waits for the day when they will all return en masse with the coming of the full redemption.
As we see, historical reality has confirmed these verses. The land of Israel was described as a barren, empty, fruitless land until the Jewish People began returning to dwell there. Visit Israel today and you can see the changes for yourself!
And if all these fulfilled promises of the Torah weren’t enough, an additional promise whispers: “But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them – for I am Hashem, their G-d” (ibid 44).
History has born witness to a nation persecuted and abused by others at all four corners of the earth, a nation the greatest world powers have risen up time and again to decimate, a nation driven from country to country in chains, on fire, and in tears for over two thousand years…that nonetheless still hasn’t been destroyed. This nation, the Jewish People, in contradiction to all known rules of the histories of nations, lives on and continues to flourish -- just as He promised we would.