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Torah Attitude: Parashas Re'eh: Forks and thorns
These words are dedicated to the loving memory of Bella "Bubbie" Hoffman (Baila bat Shmiel) on her yohrzeit (19th Sivan).
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 a corridor before a 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 parasha starts with Moses saying in the name of G'd, "See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing (will come upon you) when 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 (3) explains these verses with a parable: A respected sage sat at a fork in the road. One path appeared to be full of thorns, whereas the other path seemed to be smooth and straight. The sage was warning travelers not to take the smooth path, as it was only smooth in the beginning but later it was going to be full of thorns. He advised them to take the path that had a lot of thorns for 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 stretch of difficulties, but soon traveled along a smooth path and arrived in peace at their final destination. The others who did not listen to the sage's advice eventually realized their mistake as they reached the part of the path where they endured numerous difficulties. The Midrash concludes that this is what Moses advised the Jewish nation as he said to them: "There is a way of life and a way of death; there is a blessing and there is a curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."
As we look around, we may sometimes be tempted to choose the seemingly careless and easy path of the permissive society we live in. That is why the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 4:21) comes to remind us that this world is comparable to a corridor before a great banquet hall. One would be foolish to put all one's efforts into having a good time in the corridor and neglect the banquet hall. Our problem is that with our physical eyes we only see the corridor in this world. In order to accept and live a life based on Torah values 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.
Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto (Path of the Just, Ch.1) explains that it makes no sense to assume that this world with all its suffering could be the ultimate purpose of creation. If we stop just for a moment to think about what the world around us has to offer we see a horrific picture. Over the last few years the world has suffered immensely from natural disasters. A few years ago, the Far East experienced the tsunami that wiped out whole areas including all inhabitants. Not long after, a hurricane in the United States killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. And in Europe, floods and wildfires 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. This year we have experienced a worldwide recession that has left many thousands without jobs, and additional thousands have lost their entire savings or large parts of their portfolios. Add to this all those suffering from sickness and other problems. Rabbi Luzatto analyses a person's life. It takes years until a child develops. As people get older, many suffer from pains, aches, or take ill often struggling with serious conditions. 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 for such difficult lives? Besides that, says Rabbi Luzatto, if we were created only to live in 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, a place where the soul will find its real enjoyment and where there will be no pain and difficulties. The eternal pleasures of the World to Come are beyond our understanding as long as we live in this material world. However, we must trust Moses' message from G'd and choose eternal life by fulfilling the commandments. We have to struggle to overcome our personal tests in life and fulfill the commandments as we go through the thorny path of this world, but in this way we create our own personal niche in the World to Come.
Evildoers having fun
Part of our difficulty is that we see evildoers having a good time. We do not see any consequence of their wrongdoings. This is not a new problem. King David already addressed this issue and said (Psalms 37:1-10): "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 sometimes do good deeds. 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, during his lifetime He repays him." But their reward is short-lived, for in the World to Come they will be cut down and wither. On the other hand, the righteous also 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. In this way their eternal share in the World to Come will be even more beautiful, and there they will get what their hearts desire.
Success not always right
In the above verses King David teaches us that success is no proof of being right. We find the same lesson later in this week's parasha. There we are told about a prophet who predicts that a sign or wonder will occur and it actually happens. But if 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 "saviors" and their ideals 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 understand the interaction of the two worlds, even our lives in this world will be enhanced and pleasurable. 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." On the surface this seems strange. We can well understand that this person will have a good life in the World to Come. But how can we understand that a person who just has bread and water and sleeps on the floor is considered "fortunate" in this world? However, we can find the answer by analyzing the exact wording of the Mishnah. The Mishnah says, "If you do so, you will be fortunate in this world." Only someone who has personally 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. Such a person will not feel deprived even if he lives on a low material level, as he feels amply compensated by his spiritual enjoyment.
Taste G'd's ways
This is what 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." Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian explains that it is impossible to describe the taste of a good wine by using chemical formulas. Even the connoisseur's flowery description of wine does not really convey the actual taste. The only way to appreciate how the wine tastes is to experience it for ourselves. In the same way, King David teaches that the only way to appreciate a life based on Torah values is by personal experience. He therefore encourages us to taste for ourselves the sweetness of the ways of G'd. The late Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of England, once said that, in general, only people who do not observe Shabbos speak about the difficulties and restrictions of this observance. Once a person experiences the pleasantness of Shabbos and its spiritual uplifting, one does not feel restricted or find it difficult to observe.
When the Torah teaches us to choose life it means to give ourselves the opportunity to experience the personal fulfillment and enjoyment by observing the commandments. Only then will we really enjoy life and feel fortunate in this world. And we can be assured that it will also be good for us in the World to Come.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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