If you read the Torah, it’s all so simple. On one hand, “Im behukotai teleikhu–If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season…” (Leviticus 26:3-4). And on the other hand, “Ve-im lo tishme’u li–But if you do not obey Me…I in turn will do this to you…” (26:14, 16).
But anyone with any life experience knows that people aren’t anywhere near this easy to categorize, nor do people receive their just rewards or punishments according to the Torah’s basic equation. When people suffer, we don’t immediately wonder what they did to deserve their fate. In fact, sensing randomness to the ways of the world, sometimes we wonder why them and not us.
I went to Washington, DC, this week, on Amtrak. I was supposed to be on the 5 pm train out of Union Station on Wednesday. What if the conductor of Train 188 was instead driving my return trip? Why am I more deserving of a safe return home than Justin Zemser, Rachel Jacobs, or any of the other victims of Tuesday’s crash, whose obituaries certainly don’t read like the resume of a sinner?
The legendary Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides (aka the Rambam) urged us not to take the Torah’s simple equation at face value. His thoughts are summarized in the derash section of the Etz Hayim Humash commentary (p. 748). On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at that comment, and we’ll see that the question “why do bad things happen to good people (and the converse)” is the wrong reaction to the promises and warnings of our second parshah this week. What is the proper question? Come and join us on Shabbat morning to find out!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise