Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Bechukotai, emphasizes the subject of Divine Punishments which Hashem will bring upon the Jewish People as a consequence of disobedience to the commandments. These are not just minor inconveniences, which might serve as a wake-up call for those who have drifted into spiritual slumber and could use a jolt to snap them back to a state of religious vigilance.

No, they are quite more serious than that. All types of suffering find their way into the chapter of dire warnings called the Tochacha (Rebuke), which is stated here and repeated in Parshat Ki Tavo. They include plagues, economic distress, and even exile and persecution at the hands of cruel enemies. As Jews, we know that these warnings are not just theoretical.

Throughout the history of the exile, we have experienced every form of physical, mental and spiritual depredation the human psyche could imagine; ending in the Holocaust which established a record for evil that seems impossible to surpass. (Although the Muslim terrorists such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and ISIS would feel insulted that their efforts seem to go unnoticed in this survey. And they promise that they can be every bit as gruesome as their Hitlerian role models. So they can’t be ruled out.)

Beneath the surface of the Parsha of Divine Punishment's plain text lies an intriguing and haunting question. For what reason are the Jewish People punished when they stray from the Torah? Up to a point, there is reason and utility in the sufferings we incur for sinfulness. Clearly, they can serve a positive purpose in arousing us from a state of religious apathy into which we may fall from time to time. But that only makes sense when the extent of the blows is within reason. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case.

Some of the pogroms inflicted on the Jews have been massacres in which the enemy disregarded any form of restraint and poured out sadistic wrath against defenseless men, women, and even young children. The Holocaust went way beyond all the bounds of what could be characterized as legitimate punishment for sin.

How should that experience have been a stimulant for Teshuva (Repentance) for the countless millions who were physically and mentally tortured way beyond the point where anyone could have risen to the level of a meaningful spiritual existence?

How are we then to explain catastrophic phenomena that have targeted the Jews not just once but many times, seemingly increasing in their brutal intensity?

To address this issue, I would suggest a different approach to this vexing problem. In spelling out the terrible things that can befall us due to our rejection of the Torah, Hashem is teaching us a lesson about the nature of Humanity.

There is a great deal of sadistic hatred out there that can be converted into genocidal behavior. The classic target of all this animosity is inevitably the Jews. The Jew is everyone’s favorite prey. According to King David, this is because of the association of Hashem with the Jewish People. (Tehillim 83:3-5)

The Jews are living testimony to the existence of G-d and His Revelation of laws and moral principles for mankind to live by. Mankind doesn’t want to live by these rules and consequently hates the Lawgiver and His Messenger. The hatred of the Gentiles against the Jews is embedded in the very fabric of the natural order. Chazal (the Rabbis) classically assert that “it is a Halacha, Eisav hates Yaakov” (Rashi, Bereishit 33:4).

Therefore, the only way that the Jew can survive throughout history is with the assistance of the Creator. In the Haggada, we affirm that: “in every generation, they arise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One Blessed is He, saves us from their hands.” Consequently, without Hashem, we are unable to survive our cruel tormentors.

Hashem established a Covenant with the Jews which–if they keep–assures them of His Divine protection. The extent of the Providence we experience is in proportion to the degree to which we embrace the Mitzvot and perform them properly. However, if we reject the Torah entirely, renounce our identity and seek to live as Gentiles in order to serve “other gods” we then run the risk of incurring what is known as Hester Panim (Hiding of ‘G-d’s Face’).

This is the worst punishment of all. For when Hashem is ‘about-faced’ from us, we are vulnerable and subject to the most insidious brutalities that evil instigators can perpetrate. G-d does not direct these sufferings upon us but since we have pushed Him away from our life, He does not rescue us from them either. This, I believe, is the key teaching of Bechokutai. It conveys a crucial element in our relationship with Hashem, i.e., the feature of Hester Panim and its consequences.

We have not always been wise and fortunate enough to avoid this situation of doom. One of the responses to the Holocaust must be a deep examination and understanding of the ramifications of this doctrine; with the goal of not allowing Klal Yisrael (the Community of Israel) to fall into that Matzav (situation) ever again.

Today, Jews rightfully take comfort in the fact that they have a homeland and a powerful army to defend them against their numerous enemies. Indeed, this is a source of confidence in our future; but it cannot be the total story. The IDF and IAF alone cannot guarantee a worry-free existence. October 7th reminds us of the futility of putting one’s trust exclusively in “children of men, in whom there is no salvation” (Tehillim 146:3).

This does not mean that we should abandon warfare and focus exclusively on religion. Nor should we err, and be guilty of relying on miracles. We must take all measures within our capabilities to protect ourselves in a “natural” manner. But as our Patriarch Jacob did in his encounter with Eisav we must also turn to Hashem and beseech His Assistance.

Hashem is close to those who call on Him. And if we merit, He assists us to bring to successful fruition the practical measures we have put into place to assure survival and tranquility. May Klal Yisrael merit to renew and strengthen our unbreakable bond with the Creator of the universe at this crucial time.

Shabbat Shalom.