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LIVING THE TORAH LIFE

by Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Even any illness and any affliction that is not written in this book of the Torah, Hashem will bring upon you, until you are destroyed" (Deuteronomy 28:61).

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"Even any illness and any affliction that is not written in this book of the Torah, Hashem will bring upon you, until you are destroyed" (Deuteronomy 28:61).

In this verse, one of the concluding lines of Moses' harsh warning of the dire consequences the Jewish people will face should they reject Hashem and His Torah, many people find an allusion to the modern plagues of AIDS, Ebola, and a variety of other horrifying maladies. Indeed, the simple understanding of this verse would seem to indicate that Hashem is abridging, so to speak, the list of known diseases and allowing for inclusion of future ones so as to not turn the Torah into a catalog of plagues and sicknesses. However, there is a fascinating series of Midrashim which perhaps open the door to a broader explanation of this verse.

In the collection of Midrashim on the Book of Lamentations, the rabbis are troubled by a verse that appears in Psalms. King David laments: "Willful sinners dug pits for me, in violation of Your Torah" (Psalms 119:85). What specific violation of the Torah is referenced here? What does "pits" mean? The sages offer several solutions that are linked prophetically to the future destruction of the First Temple. The Torah commands us not to slaughter a mother cow and her calf on the same day. Yet when the Babylonians invaded our land, they mercilessly killed entire families as they clung together. Likewise, says another sage, we are forbidden from taking the chicks from the nest without first sending away the mother bird. Here again, mothers were forced to watch as their children were executed before their eyes. Finally, we find that even the Egyptians who pursued the Jewish people into the heart of the sea merited a burial, whereas Jewish bodies were strewn across the battlefields, left as food for the birds. In each of these examples, the Midrash concludes by saying, "This is in violation of Your Torah."

This compels us to stop and ponder: What is the connection between these commandments and the brutality vented upon the Jewish people? Since when do we expect that our oppressors behave towards us with the compassion mandated by the Torah? Let us go back to the verses in this week's Torah portion and see if we can unlock this mystery.

Immediately preceding the verse describing future illnesses, the Torah delineates the required abrogation of the covenant that will, in turn, warrant these horrible afflictions. "If you will not be careful to perform all the words of this Torah that are written in this book, [with the focus being] to fear this honored and awesome Name: Hashem, your G-d" (Deuteronomy 28:58). The emphasis here is based upon the understanding of the Kli Yakar, a classic commentary, who notes that the Torah is speaking concerning a specific type of Jew. This Jew studies Torah and performs its precepts, however he does not do so with the intent that this should lead him to a higher awareness of Hashem's greatness.

What then is his motivation? The Kli Yakar suggests that this Jew is driven by the interests of those around him. "Everyone else is learning, sending their children to Yeshivot, eating matzah on Passover, etc. I don't want to be seen as different." This person is addicted to the culture of Judaism, not its core component of a relentless pursuit to perfect our Divine service and purity of motives. For him Torah has become a lifestyle, not the very essence of life itself! In truth, Torah is the essence of life because Torah is the very blueprint from which life springs. It is the absolute definer of reality. It is Hashem's wisdom and therefore it is part of Him.

If so, then we cry out to Hashem, "How can it be that we are treated in such a harsh manner!? Your Torah is reality and according to its dictates it is inhumane to make us suffer such abuse!" To which Hashem responds, "Yes you're right. But Torah is only the definer of reality for those who choose to accept it as such. You learned Torah but you weren't looking for Me! Torah is only reality if it is connected to the One who made it so! You have divorced Me from My wisdom and all that is left is a lifeless husk."

Once we fail to accept Torah as the ultimate truth, then Hashem Himself no longer has to abide by its truths either. "If you reject My Torah, and think that there is something else real besides Me, then I will respond in kind and afflict you with terrible sufferings which are not written in My Torah either!"

How are we to know where our hearts lie? What is the litmus test that reveals the workings of our subconscious minds? Immediately preceding these comments the Midrash relates the following story: It was, at one time, a common practice to sacrifice one's children to an idol known as Molech. In a valley just at the base of Jerusalem, a place called Geihinom or "the valley of the cries," there stood such an idol. (This is consistent with the concept that every force in the world must have an equal counter-force. In the place of the greatest holiness there also must exist the capacity for the greatest evil.) It was to this place that parents would bring their children, bind them, and place them upon a burning hot censer while priests would pound on drums to drown out the cries of the child. We are told of the sinister methods used by the priests of Molech to lure potential parents into turning over their child for this barbaric practice. A priest would encounter a father while strolling in the marketplace and would inquire about his family. After hearing of his good fortunes, the priest would say, "Such and suchidol sent me to ask you, 'Of all your children, you cannot give me just one?'"

The father would respond, "I'm sorry, they are not available. This one is in the gold business [in today's terms, he's a lawyer], this one is into silver [a doctor], and the other one is a cattleman [CEO of a Fortune 500 company]. But wait! I do have one son who spends his days learning in Yeshiva [he doesn't do anything anyway]. When he comes home I'll give him to you." At this point Hashem himself interjects and cries: "The one that is sacred and dedicated to me - he's the one you give away? For this you shall be sent into exile!"

We all feel great pride in the accomplishments of our children, and we should be happy when they are successful in whatever profession they choose. However, the test of one's loyalty to Torah comes from recognizing deep down that just as I beam when I introduce "my son the doctor", I must beam with at least as much radiance when I introduce "my son the Torah scholar".

As we prepare ourselves for this coming year's judgment on Rosh Hashanah, we should set our focus on the Torah's definition of our relationship with Hashem. We are His children - what father would not want to see his child happy and healthy living a life full of blessing?

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Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a Torah educator in Miami.

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