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Torah Attitude: Parashas Re'eh: Forks and thorns
Moses refers to the blessing and the curse. There is a parable of a sage sitting at a fork in the road. This world is comparable to the corridor before the great banquet hall. Rabbi Luzatto explains that there is no logic in assuming that this world with all its suffering is the purpose of creation. There must be a higher purpose for our creation where the soul will find its real enjoyment, where there will be no pain and no difficulties. Part of our difficulties is that we see evildoers having a good time. Success is not necessarily a proof of being right. Once we know the true situation of the two worlds, even our lives in this world will be enhanced and pleasurable. King David encourages us to taste the sweetness of the ways of G'd. To choose the life that the Torah teaches means giving ourselves the opportunity to experience the personal fulfillment and enjoyment by observing the commandments.
Blessing and curse
This week's portion starts with Moses saying in the name of G'd, "See, I present in front of you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing that you listen to the commandments of G'd … and the curse if you do not listen to the commandments of G'd …" (De:11:26-28).
Fork in the road
The Midrash Tanchuma explains these verses with a parable: A respected sage sat at a fork in the road. One path was full of thorns at the entrance, but later was a straight inhibited path. The other path was smooth and straight in the beginning, but later was full of thorns. The sage was warning travelers that although there were a lot of thorns, this was the path to take as after a little while there would be a beautiful straight road awaiting them. The smart ones listened to the sage. They endured a relative short path of difficulties, but they arrived in peace at their final destination. The others who did not want to listen to the sage's advice eventually reached the part of the path where they endured numerous difficulties. Concludes the Midrash, this is how Moses explained to the Jewish nation and said to them: "There is a way of life and a way of death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your descendants may live."
The Mishna (Pirkei Avos 4:21) says that this world is comparable to the corridor before the great banquet hall. One would be foolish to put all one's efforts into beautifying the corridor and neglect the banquet hall. Our problem is that we only see the corridor in this world, and we have to trust G'd and believe that the world to come is where the true enjoyment and pleasure of the "banquet" are to be found.
No logic in suffering
Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto (Path of the Just, Ch.1) explains that there is no logic in assuming that this world with all its suffering is the purpose of creation. If we stop just for a moment to observe the world around us we see a horrific picture. In the United States, the hurricane has killed hundreds of people and has left thousands homeless. In Europe, floods and wildfires have caused havoc in many areas. Add to this wars and famine in the third world with tens of thousands being killed and dying from disease and malnutrition. Closer to home there are so many suffering from sickness, poverty or other problems. Rabbi Luzatto analyses every individual's life. It takes years until a child develops. As people get older, many suffer from pains, aches, or take ill after struggling with a serious condition. Even during the prime of our lives, a large part is consumed with problems and difficulties. Could it really be that G'd, who only wants to bestow goodness on His creation, could have created us with such difficult lives? Besides that, if we were created only for this world, why would we need a spiritual soul that is so exalted that it finds no pleasure in material pursuits?
Soul's higher purpose
There must be a higher purpose for our creation where the soul will find its real enjoyment, where there will be no pain and no difficulties. The eternal pleasures of the world to come are beyond our understanding as long as we live in this material world However, we trust Moses' message from G'd to choose eternal life by fulfilling the commandments. We all create our own niche in the world to come by overcoming our tests and fulfilling the commandments while going through the thorny path of this world.
Evildoers having fun
Part of our difficulties is that we see evildoers having a good time. We do not see any consequence of their wrongdoings. King David addressed this issue (Psalms 37:1-4: and said: "Don't compete with the evildoers and don't be jealous of those who do injustice. For like grass, they will quickly be cut down and like greenery they will wither. Trust in G'd and do good … and you will have enjoyment with G'd and He will give you all what your heart desires". Even evildoers have some good in them. G'd will reward them for their goodness in this world. As it says (Devarim 7:10): "And He repays His enemies … He does not delay for His enemy, in his lifetime He repays him." But in the world to come they will be cut down and wither. On the other hand, even the righteous have their shortcomings. As King Solomon says (Koheles 7:20): There is no righteous person on earth that only does good and never sins." They will be punished for their wrongdoings in this world, so that their share in the world to come will be even more beautiful, and they will get what their hearts desire.
Success not always right
In other words, success is not necessarily a proof of being right. Later in this week's Torah portion, we are told that if a prophet predicts that a sign or wonder will occur and it actually happens, and this prophet says "Let us follow the idols", the Torah instructs us (De:13:4), "Don't listen to the words of that prophet … for G'd, your G'd, is testing you, to see whether you love Hashem, your G'd, with all your heart and all your soul". We find people, both within the Jewish nation and otherwise, who will propagate various ideals or ways and will try to prove their point by showing their success and their seemingly pleasant lifestyles. The Torah warns us not to be fooled by these false prophets. Their success in no way provides proof of their righteousness. Some of these ideals and "saviors" are short-lived; others last for years and generations. The longer they exist the more difficult is the test but this is part of the thorny path of this world, with all its pitfalls. Only by being strong in our trust in the word of G'd will we succeed in reaching our destination with all its blessings.
Fortunate and good
Once we know the true situation of the two worlds, even our lives in this world will be enhanced and pleasurable. As it says (Pirkei Avos 6:4), "This is the way of the Torah. Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, and sleep on the ground ... If you do so you will be fortunate in this world and it will be good for you in the world to come." We understand well that this person will have a good life in the world to come. But how can we understand that this person is considered "fortunate" in this world? The answer can be found by analyzing the exact wording of the Mishna which adds and says, "If you do so then you will be fortunate in this world." Only those who have experienced the pleasure and enjoyment of studying Torah and fulfilling the commandments will be able to understand how fortunate a person is by doing so. As King David says (Psalms 34:10), "Taste and you will see that G'd is good. Fortunate is the man that takes protection by Him."
Taste G'd's ways
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian explains that it is impossible to describe the taste of a good wine by using chemical formulas. The only way to appreciate how the wine tastes is to experience it for ourselves. In the same way, King David encourages us to taste the sweetness of the ways of G'd. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi of England, once said that in general it is only people who do not observe the Shabbos who speak about the difficulties and restrictions of this observance. Once a person experiences the pleasantness of Shabbos and its spiritual uplifting, nobody feels restricted or finds it difficult to observe.
To choose the life that the Torah teaches means giving ourselves the opportunity to experience the personal fulfillment and enjoyment by observing the commandments. Only then will we enjoy and feel fortunate and good in this world and we can rest assured that it will be good for us in the world to come as well.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network