Shabbat Shalom: Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “You are a holy nation to the Lord your God… a treasured nation from amongst all the nations…. It was not because you were more numerous than all the nations… that God chose you since you are the smallest of all nations. It is rather because God loves you and because of His keeping of the oath which He swore to your ancestors…” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)
What is the real meaning of the “election” of Israel? It cannot be because we are better than all other nations; to dispel that notion one need only to turn again to the prophetic sections we’ve been reading these past three Sabbaths from Jeremiah and Isaiah, railing and thundering against the Israelites because of their immorality and hypocrisy.
Nor is it because the nation of Israel was a paragon of virtue in the early days of its formation. On the contrary, during the early chapters of Deuteronomy Moses actually recounts the backsliding of our people from the wanton worship of the Golden Calf just forty days after the Revelation at Sinai, to all of the petty complaints and serious rebellions against Moses (and God!) throughout the Book of Numbers. God could not possibly have been under any illusions about the superior moral quality of this family – nation that He had “chosen.”
Were we then elected because we were “the least among nations,” the fewest in number and the weakest in power, as the above quoted text would suggest? Is that a reason for being chosen? What is the source of this “love” for us of which our Bible speaks? Can it be that the Creator of the Universe fell prey to a totally arbitrary and irrational love which is the Achilles’ heel, the tragic undoing of so many of His mortal creatures, when love is merely an expression of emotion to the total exclusion of logic?
Furthermore, why refer to this particular Sabbath as Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of comfort? Historically, the Israelites continued to fast in memory of the destruction of the First Temple throughout the period of the rebuilt Second Temple and renewed Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem. We know this from a variety of sources, including Zechariah 7,8, from Josephus, 2nd Commonwealth historian, as well as from the legalist- philosopher Maimonides (Interpretations of the Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 18). After all, even our miraculous survival and subsequent rebuilding cannot begin to remove the pain of the righteous adults and innocent children who lost their lives in the period of destruction, or erase the force of the agonizing question, Eicha?! Can our generation’s remarkable return to our promised homeland provide any kind of reasonable response to the piercing question mark which arises from the smoke-stacks of Auschwitz and Buchenwald? So, from whence comes our comfort?
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, in his masterful work Faith after the Holocaust, cites a bold and startling passage of the Talmud (B.T. Yoma 69b) which sheds light on this issue:
“Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi (a survivor of the Second Temple devastation): Why was our Judicial synod called the “Men of the Great Assembly”? Because they restored the (Divine) crown to its pristine glory.
Moses came and countered, ‘the great, powerful and awesome God’ (Deut. 10)
Jeremiah came and declared, ‘The Gentiles have undermined the infrastructure of His Temple; where is His awesomeness?’ And he (Jeremiah) deleted (the word) awesome (from God’s praises in the Amidah).
Daniel came and cried out, ‘The Gentiles are subjugating His children; where is His power?’
And he (Daniel) deleted (the word) powerful (from God’s praises in the Amidah).
They (the Men of the Great Assembly, who formulated our prayers) came and restored, saying, ‘The very opposite is the truth! Herein lies the power behind God’s power: that He conquers His instinct (to set evil off at the pass before it wreaks its damage ) and has patience for the wicked (to wait for them to repent and repair the world). And herein lies His awesomeness: were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One Blessed be He, how could one (paltry) nation withstand and survive the (powerful) nation’s roundabout.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s message is indubitably clear. God has created an imperfect world of freedom of choice, a seemingly absurd and lawless world in which individuals will do even that which the Almighty would not want them to do (the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, the willful “contraction” of the goodness and justice of the Creator of the Universe, as it were, in order to leave room for a world of free choice). As the prophet Isaiah (45:7) declares, “Creator of light and Maker of darkness, Doer of peace and Maker of evil (sic), I am the Lord, the Doer of all these things.” God has confidence – and even guarantees – that eventually the wicked will repent, that human beings will eventually succeed in repairing and perfecting this world in the Kingship of the Divine, that there will eventually be a messianic period of world peace and well-being (Isaiah 2, Micah 4, Zechariah 7-9). Hence God allows the world to proceed in accordance “with its customary way,” without preventing stolen seed from taking root in the ground, or withering the hand uplifted to smite an innocent human. Hence, “there is not reward for commandments in this world;” only in the other, eternal world of souls and spirituality will there be proper rewards for deeds well done (B.T. Kidushin 39).
Israel plays a pivotal role in this drama. We are God’s “holy nation and priest-teachers” to the world (S’forno, ad loc), the descendants of Abraham who chose God before God chose him (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Laws of Idolatry 1, 1-3), guaranteed by God of eternal progeny who would eventually live in the Land of Israel and teach ethical monotheism to the entire world (Genesis 12:1-3)
Those who opposed ethical monotheism, relying on might rather than right, brute violent power rather than love and morality, have all too often ruled the world – from Pharaoh the totalitarian despot of Egypt, to Nazi Hitler to radical Wahabi Islam. The very survival of Israel, our miraculous ability to remain alive despite Egyptian enslavement and holocaust conflagration with horrific exiles and persecutions in between, – regardless of the fact that we are the most paltry in number and the weakest in power of all nations of the world (indeed, for almost 2000 years we were completely stateless and army-less), – makes us God’s witnesses, adat HaShem, testifying that God is indeed a God of love and morality, a God of right over might, a God of morality over brute force.
This is God’s power, this is God’s awesomeness, and this is the source of our great comfort: God chose you since you are the smallest (weakest) of all nations, because God loves you” – not because you are perfect but because you are morally better than your enemies, and because your very survival testifies to the existence and eventual triumph of a God of Justice, morality and peace.