In this week’s Torah, Moses tells Israel that they face a similar choice: blessing or curse, life or death:
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם--הַיּוֹם: בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה. אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה--אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם. וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם: לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים--אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם. וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--וְנָתַתָּהאֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל.
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessings at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. (Deuteronomy 11:26-29)
This is pretty much a biblical formulation of the Pleasure Principle: how to seek pleasure and avoid pain in God’s world, under God’s covenant. In speaking of last week’s Torah portion, Ekev, I mentioned “Deuteronomic theology,” a term one finds in academic discussions. “Deuteronomic theology” refers to a set of beliefs that govern the writings in the Book of Deuteronomy. Here they are in short, and note how many are reflected in the four verses above:
• God is the divine and final authority of the Israelite theocracy. Israel is God’s elect people, with whom God has a legal covenant; God has chosen Israel to follow God’s Torah, which spells out God’s will through their covenantal obligations. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:1.)
• Israel is commanded to practice generosity and compassion toward those most vulnerable: the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers residing among them, and to treat one another as brothers and siblings. (For example, Deuteronomy 14:29–15:11.)
• God has given the land of Canaan to Israel as their inheritance and they retain control of the land only so long as they obey God’s covenant. If Israel keeps the covenant, God will reward them with blessings. If they violate the covenant, they will lose possession of the land. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:28.)
• Worship is restricted God, alone, and to a centralized cult “in the place that Adonai your God will choose.” (For example, Deuteronomy 12:14 and 16:5-6.) Although Deuteronomy does not specify that location, we know from other books of the Bible that this is Jerusalem.
In the 21st century, few liberal Jews (let alone Orthodox Jews) hold to this theology. Indeed, few Americans of any religious tradition, when push comes to shove, hold this theology strongly. Even if they curse God for the trials and tragedies that befall them (“How could God let this happen to me?”), they are not likely to credit God with their personal accomplishments. If they thank God for their blessings (“God saved me for a reason”), they are unlikely to thank God when their desires are not fulfilled. Theology that entails the claim that God intervenes in our world and directs our lives is a messy business. Where does God’s providence end, and our own will and agency begin? If God rewards and punishes, why can no human being discern even the hint of a pattern of justice in the blessings and sufferings of human beings? And if God is not behind the events of our lives, let alone the larger events of the world, what is God and is there a God who promulgates Torah, mitzvot, and ethical principles for our lives? And an inescapable corollary: Is what we hold to be holy scripture truly divine in some way, or the composition of people who understood the Pleasure Principle and sought to bring order to society lest it devolve into chaos?
There are big questions and cannot be answered in brief, however pithy the response. What is more, there is no one set of answers to these questions; we each find our own understandings. However, I’d like to offer a beginning—a direction to proceed to find answers.
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Isbitza (1765-1827) was a hasidic master, a student of Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa. His commentaries on Torah are collected in a work entitled Mei Shiloach. Commenting on the verses above, the Isbitzer rebbe tells us:
Everything is from God. It is the nature of a person to shout and cry out to God, “What have You done to me?” in a time of trouble. Yet at the time when God bestows goodness, [the same person’s] eye becomes clouded from seeing that it is from God. Then that person says, My own power and the strength of my hand has made me this wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17); therefore the blessed God shows that person, See! this day I set before you, (Deuteronomy 11:26), meaning that everything is from God.
The Isbitzer tells us that God is the source of everything. This would seem to accord with the Mishnah, which tells us:
חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה שנאמר (דברים ו) ואהבת את ה' אלהיך בכל לבבך וגו' בכל לבבך בשני יצריך ביצר טוב וביצר הרע ובכל נפשך אפילו הוא נוטל את נפשך ובכל מאדך בכל ממונך ד"א בכל מאדך בכל מדה ומדה שהוא מודד לך הוי מודה לו.
One should thank God for the bad, just as he blesses God for the good, as it says, You shall love Adonai, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all of your means (Deuteronomy 6:5). “With all your heart” means with your two impulses [the word “heart” is spelled with two bets]—the evil impulse as with the good impulse. “With all of your means”—by whatever measure [the word for “measure” sounds much like the word for “means” in Hebrew] God calculates for you—whether good or bad—you should thank God. (BT Berakhot 54a)
Mishnah acknowledges that good and bad things happen to us, but wants us to be thankful for the bad as much as for the good. A tall order indeed! A few dapim (folios) later, we are treated to a story about R. Akiba that illustrates the principle that ultimately all that God does is for good.
הא דרבי עקיבא דהוה קאזיל באורחא מטא לההיא מתא בעא אושפיזא לא יהבי ליה אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב אזל ובת בדברא והוה בהדיה תרנגולא וחמרא ושרגא אתא זיקא כבייה לשרגא אתא שונרא אכליה לתרנגולא אתא אריה אכליה לחמרא אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב ביה בליליא אתא גייסא שבייה למתא אמר להו לאו אמרי לכו כל מה שעושה הקדוש ברוך הוא הכל לטובה
R. Akiba was once going along the road. He came to a certain town and looked for lodgings but was everywhere refused. He said “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good,” and he went and spent the night in the open field [a patently dangerous thing to do]. He had with him a cock, a donkey, and a lamp. A gust of wind came and blew out the lamp. A weasel came and ate the cock. A lion came and ate the donkey. [R. Akiba] said: “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good.” That same night some brigands came and carried off the inhabitants of the town. He said to them: “Did I not say to you, ‘’Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good?’” (BT Berakhot 60b-61a)
We are to understand that the cock crowing, the donkey braying, or the lamp’s light would have alerted the brigands to R. Akiba’s presence in the field. Hence, what he might have perceived as losses were actually blessings that saved his life.
But how often does life work out this way? Does this story help us see good in all the bad that befalls us? Does it work for you?
The Isbitzer rebbe’s approach is far gentler. He wants us to understand that the universe is a unity in God; all things are intertwined, connected, inseparable. What happens to us is part of what is happening to the entire world. He tells us:
This means that each time the Holy One blessed be God bestows goodness on a person, [God] dresses it in a garment so that it appears on the outside to be the opposite of that goodness. In this way, a person may refine himself by his actions and bring to light the goodness that is at the depths. Then it will be called “the work of his hands.”
For the hasidim, grounded in Kabbalah, the theme of reality not being what it seems is ubiquitous. We see “bad” and do not realize that it is good-in-disguise. On the surface, this sounds much like the Mishnah’s claim and Talmud illustration in R. Akiba’s story. But Rabbi Mordecai Yosef’s wisdom comes from a different place, a different theology. For Kabbalists, like the Isbitzer, this is not a fragmented universe. The universe is complex and often incomprehendible, to be sure, but it is all one universe, with one source of being: God. The distinctions we make between “God” and “the universe” are merely our perceptions. The distinctions we perceive between what “God does” and what “I do” are also perceptions, not ultimate reality. Ultimate reality—the unity of all—is God. Everything is contained within God: you, me, the rest of the world; good and bad. We experience things as “good” and “bad” but do not think about the full extent of the event under consideration, nor the long-range consequences. It is not easy to think on this broad scope, but doing so can ease some of our pain.
It is customary upon hearing the news of the death of a loved one to say: ברוך דיין האמת, Blessed is the Judge of truth. To many people this sounds like the suggestion that it is our duty to accept the death of one we cherish as good in some way we cannot understand, as the unfathomable act of an incomprehensible God of infinite power. I don’t think it means this at all. I think the blessing is saying that the universe is constructed in such a way that being born and having life means that one day we must surrender that life and die. That is "the way of the world,” and it is all happening inside God. In the larger scheme of things, it is the way things must be, but here in this moment, with the pain of our dead before us, it is hard to view what is happening from that vantage point. The Rabbis give us this blessing to help us gain some perspective, because perspective brings a measure of solace. Even if we cannot appreciate this blessing in the pain of the moment and in the throws of grief, in time we may come to.
We have always been creatures who seek pleasure and avoid pain. Epicurus framed it in philosophical terms, Jeremy Bentham in social-political terms, and Freud in psychological terms. Torah places into our hands the capacity not to avoid pain altogether, but by making choices that reach for blessing to lessen the pain. The Isbitzer rebbe reminds us that everything exists within God. This does not mean that what we experience as “bad” is necessarily “good,” but that everything is part of the tapestry of creation, a perspective that helps us cope with reality.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman