Tag Archives: punishment

V’etchanan: What Comes From God

ancient_jerusalemFor what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him?

Deuteronomy 4:7

Should one only call out for the “big things”? To think that prayer to God is only for the “big things” is a big mistake! We must turn to God for help and understanding in everything we do.

The Chazon Ish, a great rabbi, cited the Talmud which relates that Rav Huna had 400 barrels of wine that spoiled. His colleagues told him to do some soul-searching regarding the cause of this loss. Rav Huna asked, “Do you suspect me of having done anything improper?”

The Sages responded, “Do you suspect God of doing something without just cause?” They then told him that he was not giving his sharecropper the agreed upon portion of the crop.

“But, he is a thief!” Rav Huna protested. “He steals from me. I have a right to withhold from him.”

“Not so,” the Sages said. “Stealing from a thief is still theft” (Talmud Bavli, Berachos 5b).

“Suppose,” the Chazon Ish said, “that something like this would occur today. The search for the cause would be whether the temperature in the room was improper or the humidity too high or too low. Few people would search for the cause within themselves, in their ethical behavior. We should know that God regulates everything except for our free will in moral and ethical matters. As with Rav Huna, nothing happens without a cause.”

Dvar Torah for Parashat Va’ethannan
from Twerski on Chumash, by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz in “Shabbat Shalom Weekly”

I agree that we should turn to God with all our matters, large or small, but I wonder if every single thing that happens to us was caused by God to teach us a lesson. What can we learn from the flat tire we get while driving to an important meeting and dressed in our best clothes? What should we gather from being caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella, stubbing our toe, tripping over a crack in the sidewalk, catching a cold? Does every single event that happens, even down to the tiniest detail have to be ordained in Heaven?

I don’t know. I suppose it could. On the other hand, maybe sometimes things happen and they have no meaning. If I go down to a ridiculously small level, does it matter if I choose to wear black or white socks today? Is there going to be some consequence one way or the other? Is there a moral lesson I should learn if I get the flu or did I just get the flu? If I’m in business and should have a bad year, is that the result of some moral or ethical fault of which I’m guilty, or is it the consequence of the current economy and all businesses like mine are suffering?

Regardless of the cause of our fortunes or misfortunes (and believers are taught that everything we have comes from God), it certainly wouldn’t hurt to turn to God in good times and in bad, and call to Him for He is always near, even when we don’t feel as if He’s near.

…fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer…

Romans 12:11-12 (NASB)

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

James 5:13-15 (NASB)

praying-apostleThe verses in the Bible exhorting the advantages of prayer are all but endless, so I offer only a few examples. But it doesn’t answer the question about the nature and cause of each and every circumstance we find ourselves in. When raising small children, we try to make the consequence of misbehavior happen immediately after the misbehavior, so they’ll connect the two and learn to avoid the misbehavior. It’s easy to get the idea that God does the same thing. But then again…

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.

Ecclesiastes 8:11-13 (NASB)

In fact I believe that God deliberately delays providing the consequence upon the sinner, giving him or her time to repent and to change their behavior.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

In some ways, it might be more merciful of God if He was to discipline and chastise us each and every time we mess up right when we mess up, kind of like swatting a dog on the nose with a rolled up newspaper when it does its business on the living room carpet. Then, like a dog or a small child, we’d see the obvious and inescapable pattern between certain of our actions and the painful things that happen right afterward.

But unlike the commentary I quoted above, God just doesn’t seem to arrange our lives that way, at least not all the time. We are left then, wondering which consequence is a moral lesson and which is only a random event.

We don’t know.

But what if we pretended that everything we experience is an immediate communication from God to us? This could be horribly misused and sometimes people blame themselves without reason because they were the victim of a tragic accident or a terrible crime. You can’t blame a five-year old boy because he was killed in a drive-by shooting while standing on a street corner with his Dad waiting for the light to change. You can’t blame a forty-four year old woman who has lived a life of impeccable health who is diagnosed with breast cancer.


praying_at_masada…but what if regardless of whether we think an event has come from God or not, we turned to Him anyway? What if after having a productive day at work, you turned to God and thanked Him? What if after learning that the cost of repairing your car’s sudden breakdown will empty your savings account, you turned to God and begged for His help? What if, day in and day out, you turned to God, with praise and with petition, in happiness and in anguish?

What if?

Life happens. Sooner or later, something good will happen to you. Sooner or later something bad will happen to you. Sooner or later, nothing will happen to you and you’ll be really bored. You live, you laugh, you bleed, you breathe, you cry, you get angry, you get frustrated, you feel depressed, you are overjoyed, and everything else.

That’s your life. That’s from God. Talk to God about it. Ask Him Why? Ask Him How? Say “Thank you.” Say “I’m sorry.” You know your life. You know what’s happening. You know what to say. Just turn to God and say it.

And then listen.

Good Shabbos.

68 days.

What Doesn’t Kill You

:‫אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים. — ה‬

Whether one does a lot or a little, it is equal, as long as his intention is for the sake of Heaven – 5b

In his commentary to Hilchos Krias Sh’ma, the Or Zarua writes: “One who toils in Torah to the best of his ability might nevertheless feel that he has accomplished very little. He should know, however, that as long as he has done his best, he has earned the same reward as another who has toiled in Torah and who has accomplished much. The reward is commensurate with the effort. (Avos 5:23). The Yerushalmi even says that if one person toiled in Torah day and night for one hundred years, while another studied Torah to the utmost of his abilities for a shortened lifespan of twenty years, God rewards them equally.”

The Or Zarua concludes and rules that the same measure is used in terms of giving tzedaka and for all meritorious acts. When a person honestly does whatever he can and works to the fullest extent of his abilities, God judges it as if he has accomplished what is expected from him, and God will reward him accordingly.

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemara Gem
“To focus one’s heart for the sake of Heaven”
Berachos 5

I suppose this could be condensed down to something like, “do your best” or some similar statement. The “Gemara Gem,” from a Christian point of view, is probably thought of at best as a learned opinion or an encouraging statement, though as I’ve mentioned before that Christianity doesn’t look at Bible study as an act of loving God or something done for its own sake. In religious Judaism however, Torah study brings a Jew close to God in a way that most non-Jews will never understand. I certainly can’t claim any special insights myself.

But think of the implications here. For an observant Jew, failure to strive in Torah study or approaching Torah study with a rather casual attitude must be looked at by God in a less than complementary fashion. If Torah study is that important, whether you’re an accomplished scholar or someone who can hardly grasp the basics, it is your effort and devotion that results in God’s favor. Imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t try your best, but you still cared about merits from God. Or even imagine if you tried your best and still accomplished very little. You might still feel, regardless of what was quoted above, that you are a failure. You might even have friends or family who are more than willing to re-enforce that opinion of yourself, whether due to poor Torah study or any number of other disappointments.

Yesterday, I tried to explain that each of us, having been made in the image of God, are holy and sacred people. We should treat each other and ourselves with dignity and respect befitting someone who contains a precious spark of the Divine. However, I ended yesterday’s missive with a cautionary note:

Oh, one more thing. All this is far easier said than done, especially finding that “holy” guy in the mirror while I’m shaving in the morning.

Knowledge and insight are wonderful things but they don’t automatically result in wisdom and change, especially when your so-called “holiness” collides into the reality of day-to-day life.

Consider this.

Someone spends most of their life, for whatever reasons, believing that they have little to offer others and that whenever they try to do their best, failure is the result. They have hurt others without meaning to, hurt themselves, and generally made a mess of things. Finally, they come to the conclusion that everyone who they love and want to be close to, resents them and even sometimes hates them because of all the trouble they’ve caused.

At some point, this person, on a cognitive level, realizes that at least some of what they’re experiencing is self-constructed and self-maintained. They learn that “you are what you think” and after reading more self-help and inspirational material than they thought they could stand, they come to the realization that they have the power to change how they think and therefore, how they feel and behave.

So they give it a shot. Maybe they just practice some set of rules or habits that they’ve been told effective people use. Maybe they even go to a counselor of some sort to help get a direction and supportive feedback.

But it doesn’t work.

Here’s why.

Each day for twenty, thirty, forty years or more, this person has added ten pounds of weight on their back. I know ten pounds doesn’t sound like much, but if you added ten more pounds each day, day in and day out, 365 days a year for decade upon decade upon decade, it would eventually become tons…tons of weight on the person’s back. Tons of weight holding the person down.

Each time they employ some sort of method to change their thinking, their feeling, and their behavior, they are taking a small hammer and a wee chisel and chipping off a fleck here and a fragment there of fifty or sixty or seventy tons of concrete and steel, trying to lighten the load. After a few days or a few weeks or a few months, the person tries to stand up under the load. It doesn’t seem any lighter. They still can’t stand. They still can’t move.

On top of all this (no pun intended) the original mechanism of thoughts and perceptions that cause this person to process all outside input as negative and punitive is continuing to add more and more weight on. So as this person attempts to make their burden lighter at an extremely miniscule rate, the weight is being replaced faster than it can be removed, so in fact, change is not occurring at all or worse…the weight is getting even heavier.

Do you think when the Or Zarua says the following, that it applies to our much burdened individual?

When a person honestly does whatever he can and works to the fullest extent of his abilities, God judges it as if he has accomplished what is expected from him, and God will reward him accordingly.

I’m not sure it does. Here’s why.

Only when a person has peace of mind can he really feel love for humanity. Lack of peace of mind leads to animosity towards others. Peace of mind leads to love.

Only if a person has peace of mind will he be able to pass the test of dealing properly with other people. He will be able to [be] kindhearted to everyone. His peace of mind will enable him to tolerate others and be patient with them.

see Daas Chochmah Umussar, vol.2, p.203;
Mussar Hatorah, p.10;
Gateway to Happiness, p.73
quoted from Aish.com

If we are supposed to love God by loving other people and performing acts of kindness and charity, and thus achieve an understanding that we can love ourselves and that indeed, God loves us too, how is this achieved if you cannot perform the first step? I suppose I’m looking at this in too much of a linear fashion. I’ve said before that feelings are not necessary in order to do good. Just do good. And yet, thoughts and feelings of self-loathing, self-deprecation, and the insurmountable weight of depression, like 88,000 pounds of lead crushing you into the dirt and mud, makes it difficult or even (seemingly) impossible to budge an inch. In real life, it takes some sort of motivation to do just about anything, especially something that is out of character and that requires an extraordinary effort.

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. –2 Timothy 4:5-8 (ESV)

But the encouragements of Paul in the New Testament might seem to backfire in the face of someone pinned to the ground by their faults like an insect trapped in amber.

I know some people read blogs like mine for a sense of encouragement, support, and inspiration, but mine is a very strange “inspirational” blog. Candy-coating life is usually ineffective, and it’s practically insane to deny that some people find emotional survival to be the best they can accomplish on any given day, or at the very least, it’s rather cruel. In the background of life for a person like the one I’ve been describing, it isn’t just the fear that the people they love will get fed up with them and leave, but that God will get fed up as well.

Worry can always provide reason. Maybe G‑d is out to punish you. Maybe you don’t deserve to be saved from the mess you’ve gotten into. Maybe an ugly mess is the only way He has to provide for you.

That’s not called trust. Trust means you have not a shade of doubt that He will deliver. No matter what.

The heavens above mirror the earth below. Trust in Him and He will fulfill your trust.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Forget Punishment”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Telling someone like this that they don’t trust God may seem to be rather “oh duh” at this point. They know that. It’s just another nail in their emotional coffin, just another ten or a hundred pounds added to what they’re already ladened with (though I should say at this point that if you can’t trust God, trusting or even liking most other people is probably out of the question, but here’s the kicker…do you not trust God because people have proven to be untrustworthy or do you not trust people because you believe God is untrustworthy?).

You must treat yourself with respect. To do otherwise is to desecrate something that is holy.

That which doesn’t kill you will usually try again.

Supposedly, you can only go down so far before you start to rise up again. There is a principle in some areas of Judaism that says, “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.” Of course, that “ascent” might not occur until the world to come, which means you’re already dead and your life on earth hasn’t worked out at all. Besides, it’s just a saying. You can’t find it in the Bible.

And yet the Jewish people have survived every conceivable defeat, degradation, and humiliation, and still managed to survive and even to thrive due to such teachings added to the promises of God.

Why doesn’t this work for anyone else?

There is an increasingly mythical sacred person buried under endless tons of rock, dirt, and pain. They keep trying to dig their way out of their cave-in using only splintered, bloody stumps of what’s left of their fingers. The light is dimming and the air is running out. When the Divine spark is extinguished, what will be left of the person who was supposed to be holy? When the abyss finally claims its victim, will God still be there to watch?