Answering the voice that says we deserve what has happened


By Rabbi Neil Tow

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25.

For natural disasters, there is always a voice that proclaims that we deserve what has happened due to our transgressions. As we read this week from Parshat Ekev, the Torah appears to suggest just such a calculation in more than one passage, including one that is a core part of our prayers throughout the year.

In the midst of the pandemic, it is particularly painful to read from the opening verses of our parshah: “If you obey these rules and observe them carefully…God will faithfully maintain the covenant God made with your ancestors…and God will ward off from you all sickness.”

When we read these words, we cannot escape the cause and effect. Those who suffer sickness must not be fulfilling their side of the covenant with God. The Ran, Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (Spain, 1320-1376), who lived through another pandemic, read this verse and proclaimed, “But we have been witness to the chastisements of our God for 13 years now, a complete reversal of the natural order of things.”

I suspect that even if Dr. Anthony Fauci explained to him the details of virology, he still would have attributed the plague to “the chastisements of our God.”

The crescendo in this way of thinking appears in a familiar liturgical piece taken from the end of this week’s reading. This passage, known to us as the second paragraph of Shema, speaks about reward and punishment on a national scale. If we obey the commandments, then there will be rain and plenty. If we serve other gods, then God will shut the heavens, and then no food will grow and we will “soon perish from the good land Adonai is assigning to you.”

The second paragraph of the Shema may couch reward and punishment in collective language, but the philosophy does not change. The evidence from Tishah B’Av last week lends weight to the theology in this week’s parshah with the bottom line that our causeless hatred of one another, sinat chinam, coupled with other sins, caused our downfall.

And then we take special notice of the way Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, interjects itself in between Tishah B’Av and this Shabbat.

In between the bookends of sin and punishment, we find one of the happiest days of the year. On this day, the young women of Jerusalem would go out into the orchards and dance, and on this “Sadie Hawkins” day there would be matchmaking and merriment. After three somber weeks leading up to the darkness of Tishah B’Av, the music and dancing break out in a Jerusalem that is alive and thriving with dancers dressed in white.

The Rebbe of Apt explains that in this dancing is “complete unity, face to face, everyone is equal…and no one is jealous of another.”

We see then how Tu B’Av reframes our thinking about sin and punishment. This day of love encourages us to leave behind our doom and gloom and embrace an outlook of unity, celebration and hope. We are responsible for our actions and their results, but the gates of teshuvah are always open.

The Torah’s warnings are meant, however harshly they are worded, to inspire us to strive, to grow and be there for others when they are stumbling. In place of sinat chinam we give to others ahavat chinam, the blessings of love, care and compassion— especially to those who are suffering from the coronavirus and their families.

Then, from out of a world in pain, we begin to see sparks of holiness, glimmers of God’s presence through the pain and loss — the beginnings of a world refreshed and renewed.

Rabbi Neil Tow is associate rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, in Potomac.

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