“Can the Promise of G-d Keep the People Holy?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Tavo is one of the two parashiot in the Torah that features the Tochacha, the terrifying prophecies of G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people for not following the precepts of the Torah.

Although the bulk of Deuteronomy 28 is devoted to G-d’s admonition of the Jewish people, as is often the case, the numerous dreaded threats are preceded by a host of blessings that will accrue to the people of Israel who faithfully follow the Al-mighty’s commandments.

In the opening verses of Deuteronomy 28, G-d tells the Jewish people that if they are loyal to Him they will be elevated above all the nations of the earth, and that all the blessings of G-d will come upon them. The people will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field. The fruit of the womb and the fruit of the ground will be blessed, as well as the progeny of the animals. The fruit baskets and the kneading troughs will be blessed. The people will be blessed when they come in and when they go out. Israel’s enemies who rise up against them will be struck down and flee before them. G-d will bless the people’s storehouses and all of the people’s undertakings, and will bless the land that G-d gives them.

Sounding very much like the culmination of all the preceding blessings, the Torah, in Deuteronomy 28:9, declares: “Y’kim’chah Hashem lo l’ahm ka’dosh, ka’ah’sher nish’bah lahch, kee tish’mor et mitzvot Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah, v’hah’lach’tah bid’rach’chav,” G-d will establish you as a Holy people to Himself, as He swore to you–if you observe the commandments of the Lord, your G-d, and go in His ways.

The Haamek Davar (R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, 1817-1893) finds in the wording of this particular verse a basis for the assurance that G-d will enable those who wish to commune with Him in holiness to achieve that level of sanctity, even when engaged in keeping the everyday precepts. The Haamek Davar explains further that not only will the people be blessed when they pursue material things, but that they will not be defiled or seduced by the mundane blandishments. Instead, the blessing of the L-rd will stand by them to enable them to overcome all temptations. This, of course, underscores the famed Jewish axiom of “Mitzvah goreret Mitzvah” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:2), that virtue brings on more virtue and more reward, and that abiding by G-d’s Torah serves to protect the people from evil influences.

There is a fundamental difference of opinion among observant Jews today regarding how to properly and effectively live full Jewish lives. Many are of the opinion that because the power of secular blandishments are so great, the only foolproof solution is to withdraw as much as possible from outside influences. Others say that it is important that Jews play a role in contemporary life so that they can serve as models to others and influence them. The danger of the open-minded approach is that one can never be certain that the outside world will not overwhelm even the most committed Jews and cause them to lose their focus and sanctity.

The Haamek Davar is declaring, in effect, that those who are obedient to G-d’s precepts, even if they are deeply involved with everyday affairs, may be guaranteed that they will not be distracted from the holy life. Outside influences will not serve as a barrier between human beings and G-d, to whom they would cleave as before.

This debate, of course, is not merely theoretical. It is a very real and bitter reality in the contemporary Jewish world. The venomous article written by the brilliant Noah Feldman in the recent Sunday New York Times Magazine, in which he spews forth contempt for the modern Orthodox world that rejected him after his intermarriage is very much part of this debate.

There is no doubt that Noah Feldman was one of the best and brightest in his class in the Maimonides School of Boston. Despite his outstanding academic achievements, he continued to live an observant lifestyle, apparently until he met his (non-Jewish) Korean girlfriend, who later became his wife. Could it be that Noah Feldman’s religious commitment was not properly focused even while he practiced the Orthodox lifestyle and therefore G-d’s blessing did not protect him from being distracted from Jewish life and commitment? Or is it that it is simply impossible to be a Tzaddik in “Sodom,” where virtually every moment of the day Jews are subjected to the most powerful seductive attractions, ripping them away from their commitments and their loyalty to their faith.

In the Book of Esther 2:5, we are told: “Eesh Yehudi hay’yah b’Shushan Habirah,” there was a Jewish man in Shushan, the Capitol, whose name was Mordechai. Rabbi Yonaton Eybeschutz (1690-1764, famed Talmudist, Halachist and Kabbalist, Dayan of Prague, and later Rabbi of the “Three Communities”–Altona, Hamburg and Wansbek) reads into the extra words, “Shushan the Capitol,” that Mordechai acted as a Jew, not only in the privacy of his home and in the Bet Midrash, the house of study, but even in Shushan on the streets among the people. Mordechai was a communal leader and activist who was very much involved in secular local and national politics. At the same time, he was a member of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, Men of the Great Assembly, the 120 leading sages of that era. Jewish history regards Mordechai as a great uncompromising hero who risked his life on many occasions to stand up for his people and affirm his devotion to G-d. On the other hand, Jewish tradition criticizes Mordechai somewhat, stating that because of his many communal involvements, he never achieved the greatness that he had the potential to achieve in the realm of Torah and the world of Jewish scholarship. He is therefore not regarded among the truly great scholars of the Men of the Great Assembly.

Jewish tradition states “Ayn sohm’chim ahl ha’nays,” (Pesachim 64b) we do not rely on miracles. One cannot walk into a lion’s den expecting G-d to protect him. Each person is required to care for his/her own safety and security. Pushing the envelope is foolish and futile.

Although there are no easy answers to resolve this ongoing debate, there is, I believe, a valid and thoughtful approach that may be helpful. It is the question of “balance.” After consulting with wise advisors, each person must use his/her own common sense to determine how to balance their own involvement in the secular world and their commitment to the world of Torah. Those who are naturally weak should close themselves off from the virulent outside influences. Those who are stronger and more comfortable with the outside influences, may get more involved in the outside world and rely on G-d’s blessing that He will protect them and keep them holy. For those who are not certain whether they have the inner strength, it is always better to err on the side of security and holiness and withdraw from the contemporary blandishments.

Sometimes, in times of epidemic, it is necessary for doctors to withdraw and care for themselves, so there will be at least some healthy physicians left to treat the others when the epidemic subsides.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We can rely on G-d’s blessing, but we also must rely on our own self-awareness and common sense.

May you be blessed.