Sermon delivered September 16, 2011
by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
Several years ago, during the High Holy Days, I talked about divine justice. I shared my religious beliefs, as well as my doubts. After Yom Kippur, a long-time Temple member contacted me, upset by my sermon. How could I stand before the congregation and say that I’m not sure that God rewards our righteousness and punishes us when we sin? What is the point of the High Holy Days, if God is not sitting in judgment; and if God does not exact consequences, positive and negative? After all, the theology of God’s judgment is clearly based in Torah – in tonight’s reading, no less.
In the verses I read moments ago, Moses insists that blessings do come to those who live by God’s will. In later verses, Moses describes curses in a cadence that will sound familiar: “If you do not obey Adonai your God . . . Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl…. Cursed shall you be in your comings and cursed shall you be in your goings.” Moses goes on to describe the curses in 54 lengthy and detailed verses, compared with only 14 verses for the blessings.
Scholars believe that Deuteronomy was written in the Seventh Century B.C.E. The Kingdom of Judea was threatened from all sides. The northern Kingdom of Israel and its ten tribes had been conquered and dispersed 100 years earlier. The curses that issue from Moses in tonight’s portion make clear the source of the problem: If the Children of Israel will obey God, they will be blessed and will retain their sovereignty. If they sin, they will be conquered and their Temple will be destroyed. Later books of the Bible, describing the destruction of the first Temple, blame that tragedy on the people’s idolatry. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who burns the Temple to the ground, is no more than an instrument of God, imposing justice on the Children of Israel.
To us, this theology smacks of blaming the victim. In the wake of the Holocaust, most of us are not prepared to think the Jewish people are at fault when tragedy befalls us.
Not all Jews are so reticent. One Ultra-Orthodox leader, the Satmar Rebbe, observed that Reform Judaism was founded in Germany. He claimed that the Holocaust was God’s punishment, utilizing the Nazis as Divine instruments to avenge the blasphemy of German Reform Judaism.
Others are not as bold or defamatory as the Satmar Rebbe. One can believe in divine judgment without claiming to know God’s reasons. The Bible’s Book of Job teaches that God is in charge, and that God has reasons for everything that happens on Earth. We humans, though, are limited and cannot know God’s ways. We must simply accept what comes our way and understand it as God’s will.
In recent decades, Jewish theology has turned further away from a God who punishes sin and rewards goodness. The best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner, takes a different approach. Kushner, who lost a child himself, cannot accept that tragedies are caused by the sins of the stricken. Instead, Kushner would have us struggle with God to understand why the world is created in such a way that bad things really do happen to good people, and not because those good people have done something awful to deserve it. Kushner movingly imagines that God weeps with us when calamity strikes.
Many other religious people believe in a God whose rewards and punishments are not to be found in this world. If we are righteous, they preach, we will be rewarded with everlasting joy in a magnificent life after death. If we sin, we will be damned for all eternity.
Note, though, that our Torah portion does not mention rewards or punishments after we die. No, the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy are all right here, in this world. In fact, the entire Tanach, our full Jewish Bible, does not mention life after death. Ancient Israelites were aware of the Egyptian cult, with its tombs and pyramids filled with riches, focused on reward and escaping punishment after death. Apparently, our ancestors in the biblical period didn’t believe it.
Frequently, when potential converts approach us here at Temple Beth-El, they tell us that our this-worldly approach is part of what has attracted them. Often, they see themselves as refugees from a harsh religion that focuses heavily on hellfire and damnation. Here, they find the opportunity to perform mitzvot, religious obligations that do the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world to build toward a messianic future here on Earth.
I am moved, of course, by our conversion candidates’ inspiration. At the same time, I emphasize that Christianity is multi-vocal; many Christian Churches so not preach that harsh theology they have rejected. Judaism, too, is diverse. Some rabbis will preach a harsh punishment upon those who do not perform the mitzvot. When they do, they stand on the firm ground of Torah, tonight’s portion being an example. Also, while the Bible doesn’t mention the afterlife, the Rabbis do. The Talmud and the prayerbook are full of references to mitzvot and sins whose reward and punishment are found not only in this world, but also the world to come.
Tonight we find ourselves in the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. This year, as we prepare to repent, will we resolve to do better because we fear punishment? When we ask God to write our names in the Book of Life, will we be pleading for mercy, in this world or the next? Or will we view these images as metaphors? Perhaps we will repent because we value God’s teachings; and being a better person is, well, better.
Perhaps each of us will be motivated differently. Whatever our reason for performing mitzvot, our righteous deeds often do enrich God’s creation, including our own lives. By contrast, our wickedness diminishes us and the world around us.
Our Bar Mitzvah celebrant this Shabbat, Evan Viroslav, has performed a great and awesome mitzvah on this occasion. He has asked his friends and family not to give him presents, but instead to make donations to his philanthropic fund at the Jewish Federation. Evan is directing those gifts to “Youth Futures,” an after-school program for at-risk youth from all walks of life in Israel.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel offers us the faith that Evan’s goodness will have an impact beyond Evan and his tzedakah, beyond the people who will attend his Bar Mitzvah, beyond the kids in Israel who attend the “Youth Futures” program, even beyond this world. Righteousness, in Heschel’s theology and our own, has eternal purpose, in this world and in God’s:
“Life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”