So this is where we are: The weirdest weather we can remember. Partners falling ill – some in constant pain, others only with vague memories of who we are. Parents remembered at the graveside – some gone way before their time. All this and more happening as we try our best to cope with an international pandemic that has us praying and learning from afar every week for months on end – a dangerous disease that has forced children from their classrooms, parents from their places of work, merchants struggling to survive, and a lot of people afraid to go to the store or the pharmacy because not everyone is respectful enough to put on a mask.
Welcome to the life of our congregation in the summer of 2020.
As we learn the painful stories of those whose lives have been devastated by the coronavirus and the economic destruction it has wrought– we fall back on the age-old question of WHY? Why, God? Why do bad things happen to good people?
It is, unfortunately, a question for which there is no answer.
But why should that be? Is God not all-powerful? Or all-good? Or: Is God—if you believe in God’s existence—simply removed from the world? More than three decades ago, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner deliberately titled his book about theodicy When Bad Things Happen To Good People, not why, because, he came to believe, based on his own experiences, that pain and tragedy are simply part of the world as God created it. Rabbi Kushner wrote:
“God does not cause our misfortunes. . . . Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.”
But the fact remains that bad things do happen to good people. We have seen that every day of this pandemic: On this past Tuesday alone, more than 13-hundred people in the United States died of the Coronavirus. Nearly 160-thousand total. Almost five million people in this country have become infected. And countless millions of others are stretched to their limit – or beyond – financially, emotionally, socially.
Feeling each day like we’re caught in a vise, making it hard sometimes to breathe, or think, or plan – it’s natural that we would turn to Torah for help and relief. But then we come face to face with what we read this Shabbat in Eikev, the third parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy.
Here the so-called Deuteronomic theology is in full display: If you obey God, you will be rewarded; if you disobey, you will be punished. This concept has underscored the study we’ve been doing for months now on Saturday mornings, first from the Book of Judges and now in the Book of Samuel, which are thematically (and theologically) tied into Deuteronomy. And we’ve struggled with it a lot.
And all comes from here, as God, through Moses, lays out the choice in language that people who live off the land will understand:
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I also will provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.
“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down to them. For the Eternal’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)
These words are familiar to anyone who davens regularly from a traditional or Conservative prayer book, as they comprise much of the second paragraph of scriptural verses that immediately follow the Shema. They do not appear in American Reform prayer books. We Reform Jews have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience tells us not to believe in Deuteronomic theology.
We are not the only ones troubled by it. Two millennia ago, the early Sages, who witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple, and the death and desolation that accompanied it, formulated the notion of the olam haba, the “world to come,” as the place where people would finally get whatever is due them in this world. The Mishnah teaches us: “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come,” with the exception of heretics who reject Torah itself.
Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, in his classic fifteenth-century Mishnah commentary, gave a beautiful description of the ultimate reward of the good people who might have suffered in this world: “The righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and enjoy the brilliance of the Divine Presence.”
That’s a lovely image. And the olam haba may give some comfort to those who struggle with theodicy and the question of God’s place in our lives. But the fact remains that we all still must live in the olam hazeh, in “this world.”
The pandemic may well be, as Rabbi Kushner wrote, an inevitable consequence of “living in a world of inflexible natural laws.” But our response to it is not fixed. It is not inevitable. And this may be where we look for the answers to the troubling questions raised by this Torah portion.
What we’re given here, on the surface, is a very rigid concept of good and evil, of reward and punishment. And it’s a concept that, as we know, does not play out in real life. But let’s look below the surface. And let’s look at it in the context of the rest of Torah portion. Because it is introduced by this call by Moses’s to the Israelites:
“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul . . .” (Deuteronomy 10:12)
And how do we do that? Moses tells us that, too:
“Cut away, therefore, the thickening of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Eternal is God Supreme . . . who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Deut. 10:16-19)
This is the context into which Moses now places the promise of the blessings of rain in its time, and new grain and wine and oil.
So, I’m thinking: Maybe all of that isn’t a rigid notion of Divine gifts and retribution after all. Maybe – if we read it in context — the examples that Moses gives of God’s gifts to us are meant to be a metaphor for the gifts we ought to be giving one another, if we are acting in God’s image and following God’s example.
Maybe the reward of goodness comes from the good we do for others, the way we spread God’s kindness through life, through our families and our communities. Maybe the reward of goodness is a natural outgrowth of loving and serving God with all our heart and soul. Upholding the cause of the weak. Treating the stranger with respect. We can’t always identify the people who are vulnerable. But we don’t need to. The food banks and shelters in our area always need financial support. And spreading God’s kindness doesn’t even require money. Maybe it’s as simple an act as wearing a mask out in public, and socially distancing, and washing up properly. We never know who that might help.
Rabbi Kushner also writes: “we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes.” But we should never be in a position where we are hurt or betrayed by others. And we certainly don’t want others to feel hurt or betrayed by us.
The answer to this dilemma of good and evil, of reward and punishment, may be as simple as Moses’s added personal appeal to each of us:
“Love the Eternal your God and keep God’s charges, laws, judgments and commands, every single day.” (Deut. 11:1)
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will, and our mission. And let us say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Mishnah Sanhedrin: A New Translation with a Commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1994), Chapter 10, Mishnah 1, pp. 137-138 in the paperback edition