Pestilence comes to the world for death penalties mentioned in the Torah which are not in the hands of the courts [to administer] and for [the forbidden use of] Sabbatical year produce. The sword comes to the world for the delay of justice, the perversion of justice, and for those who expound the Torah not in accordance with Jewish law. Wild beasts come to the world for false oaths and the desecration of G-d’s Name. Exile comes to the world for idolatry, adultery, murder, and the working of the earth on the Sabbatical year.
Last week we began discussing the punishment of pestilence. We raised the issue of how a G-d of infinite justice could wield a rod of chastisement such as pestilence. Don’t plagues strike entire populations — sweeping away the innocent together with the guilty?
To explain (at least partially), we defined the concept known as G-d’s slowness to anger (erech apayim). Many people — basically all of us — have done acts at one time or another for which G-d — if He would only look so closely — would find us sorely wanting. (And since we could not even pretend to understand such a topic without the wisdom of Kaballah, we must add that a person may be wanting from sins of a past life. Reincarnation — though not more than hinted to in the Talmud — is a well-established notion in Kabbalistic thought. G-d mercifully gives us additional chances to fulfill our mission in life.) G-d, however, in His mercy and patience, does not take the “effort” to look so closely at our faults. He patiently waits for us to make amends for our sins and return to Him. If, however, such a person finds himself in a “high-risk” situation — everyone around him is succumbing to a contagious disease or is being swept away in a flood — G-d may not “go out of His way,” so to speak, to save such a person.
To the above we asked: Even if there is justice to the killing of “innocents” in a time of plague, why would G-d bring such a punishment in the first place? Why break forth and strike at so many people at once — endangering innocents whose sin seems to be nothing more than being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why would a G-d of infinite justice strike at anyone other than the true sinners — the ones whose wickedness was heinous enough to test G-d’s patience, “forcing” G-d’s attention upon them? It is almost as if the transgressions of mankind made G-d burst forth in anger, striking indiscriminately at everything and everyone in His path — almost as a furious person waves his fists or bangs on the table, venting his anger on anything within reach.
Let us look more closely at the sins of our mishna. They hold the key. The first case was sins for which human courts have no recourse (such as when there is insufficient evidence to incriminate the defendant, or in times and places in which Jewish courts are not functional). This applies to a wide range of transgressions — any of the many sins listed in the Torah as punishable by death. What could the common theme behind so many distinct transgressions be?
The answer is that a serious sin was committed and nothing changed. The world went on. No compensation, no ramifications, no pressing for charges. A sin went unpunished. Life — the family, friends, neighbors of the sinner, even the courts — went on as if nothing occurred. G-d and all He stands for were ignored.
Similarly, if someone treats seventh year produce as if nothing is different about it — he sells it as usual to willing buyers, passing off the sacred as mundane — the sanctity of the world has been ignored. Nobody cared enough to notice. G-d was basically forgotten, and the world went on.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig explained that when such sins occur — when G-d’s existence is ignored — G-d strikes back: He makes Himself noticed. When a human being feels he is ignored or not appreciated, he may respond by making himself known — hopefully in a productive way by having a positive impact on the world, but sometimes in a destructive way — hurting others, physically or emotionally, as an “easy way out” of feeling his own power.
G-d responds likewise. If the evil of the world is a lack of recognition of G-d, G-d responds by making His Presence noticed. He does not appease His wrath through subtle, inconspicuous acts of retribution. He shows mankind just Who’s in charge. There are forces in this world — massive, destructive forces — which G-d can unleash at any moment at His slightest whim. G-d demonstrates His control of the world in grand and public fashion. He strikes out not at the perpetrator alone but much further and wider. The world will be made to know just Whom it is ignoring.
This principle, however, is not a “destructive” one alone. It has saved the Jewish people more than once. If G-d’s primary reason for punishing so publicly is more for the show, so to speak, than to actually wipe out large populations, He does not need to strike at people at all. When Israel became deserving of destruction in the time of the First Temple, the Midrash writes that G-d instead “poured out His wrath on sticks and stones” — destroying the Temple edifice rather than the nation (Eichah Rabbah 4:11). How does G-d “appease His wrath” on inanimate objects? Doesn’t G-d’s anger result from sin, and can’t it only be appeased by bringing the wicked to justice?
The answer is that when the message the world must see is G-d’s existence, G-d can achieve the same effect via other means. When the Temple stood but Israel was not truly cognizant of G-d’s Presence, G-d was able to chastise us through the Temple’s destruction. The nation was preserved, beaten and exiled, but destined to survive for future generations.
We have not been blessed with the Temple for many years, but we too are allowed occasional glimpses of G-d’s benevolence. When a car bomb is planted by murderous terrorists in front of an elementary school building but detonates at the wrong time — directly hurting no one (that specific event occurred here in Israel several years ago — but of course similar events have occurred many times before and since), G-d is also showing Himself — teaching us the lesson of His reality. He is showing that it is He who protects us, and that our enemies will never be able to harm us so long as we are praying and G-d is watching.
(Unfortunately, the failed terrorist attempts — though far more miraculous than the successful ones — do not command the same international media attention. It’s almost laughable here in Israel reading the number of terrorists who blew themselves up in “work accidents” — while preparing explosives, or because their explosives mysteriously exploded while they were on their way to an attack, etc. If they would be anywhere near as successful as they try, we would be in a difficult situation indeed. One day I’d like to go over and thank the angel in Heaven in charge of premature detonations. 😉
(Note that the above two paragraphs were written in 2001, during the Second Intifada, and I mostly kept the original text. For better or worse, we in Israel have experienced no shortage of attacks and thankfully miraculous salvations since then.)
Perhaps we will be granted more “good” opportunities to recognize G-d’s providence — before He finds need to bring the more destructive type. May we merit to see G-d through His visible acts of kindness and providence — to ourselves and to His nation — and through this may the time come when G-d’s Presence is revealed to all mankind.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.