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Va’etchanan 5776-2016

“Blessing G-d for the Good and the Bad”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, includes the שְׁמַע–“Shemah,” the central Hebrew prayer in which Jews, twice daily, accept upon themselves the dominion of G-d.                     

 The opening verse of the Shemah, found in Deuteronomy 6:4, reads: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ השׁם אֶחָד, Hear O’ Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One! The Shemah is the “oldest and greatest of our prayers” and is generally regarded as the supreme declaration of faith in Judaism. It is often the first prayer taught to little children, the last words recited by Jews before they die, and uttered by would-be Jewish martyrs who face the prospect of death at the hands of their enemies.

 The second verse of the Shemah, וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ, calls upon Jews to love the L-rd their G-d with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might.

Rashi notes that this verse comes to teach several basic elements of faith: Jews should always perform G-d’s words and commandments out of love.  Jews should fulfill G-d’s instructions with all their heart, utilizing both the inclination to do good and even the drive to evil. Never should there be any suspicion or doubt in a Jew’s heart regarding G-d, His actions, or His decisions.

Citing the Talmud in Brachot 54a, Rashi interprets the phrase וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ with all your soul, to mean that a Jew must love G-d even if G-d takes one’s soul away. Thus, Jews must be prepared to forfeit their lives for the sanctification of G-d’s name when the situation calls for it.

Rashi interprets the expression וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ, sometimes translated as with all your might, to mean that one must love G-d with all one’s possessions and belongings. Citing the Talmud in Brachot 54a, Rashi notes that בְּכָל מְאֹדֶךָ can also mean that one must be prepared to accept G-d’s judgment with every measure (midah) that G-d metes out, whether good or bad.

In addition to the previously-mentioned interpretation of the words בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ“bechol nasfshecha,” to mean that one must love G-d even if He [G-d] takes your life away, the Talmud in Brachot 54a, further elaborates, stating that a Jew is expected to bless G-d for the evil that one experiences, just as G-d must be blessed for the good that one experiences.

An interesting aspect of this principle is the double blessing, one for evil and one for good, that one must make upon suffering the loss of a close relative who has left the bereaved mourner a significant legacy.

The Talmud (Berachot 61b) relates the tragic case of Rabbi Akiva (Talmudic sage c. 40-c. 137) who was martyred during the Roman Hadrianic period. As Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was scraped with steel combs, he continued to recite the Shemah. Beholding Rabbi Akiva’s incredible courage in face of torture and certain death, his students were astounded by their rabbi’s deep faith. They asked him, “Our master, how far must one bear one’s faith?” He responded, “My entire life, I was saddened that I never had the opportunity to fulfill the verse [of the Shemah], “bechol nasfshecha,” even if He [G-d] takes your soul. Now that I have that opportunity, should I not fulfill it?”

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva intoned the last word of the opening verse of the Shemah, אֶחָד, the L-rd is One, until his soul departed from his body. A voice then came forth from heaven and proclaimed, “Praised are you Akiva, you are destined to a life in the World to Come.”

One of the important principles of faith that is articulated by the rabbis (Brachot 60b) is the statement כָּל דְּעָבִיד רַחְמָנָא לְטַב עָבִיד, basically asserting that whatever the All-Merciful G-d does is always for the benefit of humankind. The Talmud (e.g., Taanit 21a and Sanhedrin 108b) abounds with stories of people who would often say גַּם זוֹ לְטוֹבָה, “this too is for the good”–even when terrible tragedies befell them.

The rabbinic proclamation that one needs to bless G-d for the evil, just as He is to be blessed for the good, is both fascinating and perplexing.

This idea is predicated on the assumption, that in a real sense, the ethical world operates very much like the physical world. If there were no darkness, there would be no light. Were there no cold, there would be no heat. If there were no sadness, there would be no joy. If there were no death, there would be no life. If there were no illness, there would be no healing.

I recall a provocative discussion about good and evil. It was suggested that if every time a plane filled with travelers was about to crash, a Divine hand appeared to gently bring it down to earth, there would be little or no progress in the world. The world would cease to move forward. Humankind would be in its own spiritual/physical “Garden of Eden” leaving the Al-mighty to care about all threats and concerns. Of course, there would be no need for crews to maintain airplanes, and no reason to improve on the comfort, speed or safety of airliners. Progress would basically come to a total and absolute halt.

I recently came across a most enlightening tale of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. Feeling pity on the butterfly, the observer cut the butterfly loose from its cocoon, lifting the undeveloped butterfly out. Unfortunately, because the butterfly never struggled to emerge from its cocoon, it did not develop its muscles and was unable to fly or search for food. Its life ended shortly after it left its place of birth.

Going through life without obstacles is actually crippling. The obstacles we face in life are often blessings that strengthen us, leaving us with the ability to not only fly, but to actually soar.

May you be blessed.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. “Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, August 18th and 19th, 2016. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here).