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May 13, 2015 1:46 pm

Why We Are Responsible for Evil That Befalls Us – And Why That is Good

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

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A torah scroll. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The 26th chapter of Vayikra sets out with stunning clarity the terms of Jewish life under the covenant. On the one hand, there is an idyllic picture of the blessing of divine favour. If Israel follows God’s decrees and keeps His commands, there will be rain, the earth will yield its fruit, there will be peace, the people will flourish, they will have children, and the Divine presence will be in their midst. God will make them free. “I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.”

The other side of the equation, though, is terrifying: the curses that will befall the nation should the Israelites fail to honour their mission as a holy nation:

“But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands … I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it … If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze … I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled … As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them. (Lev. 26: 14-36)

Read in its entirety, this passage is more like Holocaust literature than anything else. The repeated phrases – “If after all this . . . If despite this . . . If despite everything” – come like hammer-blows of fate. It is a passage shattering in its impact, all the more so since so much of it came true at various times in Jewish history. Yet the curses end with the most profound promise of ultimate consolation. Despite everything God will not break His covenant with the Jewish people. Collectively they will be eternal. They may suffer, but they will never be destroyed. They will undergo exile but eventually they will return.

Stated with the utmost drama, this is the logic of covenant. Unlike other conceptions of history or politics, covenant sees nothing inevitable or even natural about the fate of a people. Israel will not follow the usual laws of the rise and fall of civilizations. The Jewish people were not to see their national existence in terms of cosmology, written into the structure of the universe, immutable and fixed for all time, as did the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians. Nor were they to see their history as cyclical, a matter of growth and decline. Instead, it would be utterly dependent on moral considerations. If Israel stayed true to its mission, it would flourish. If it drifted from its vocation, it would suffer defeat after defeat.

Only one other nation in history has consistently seen its fate in similar terms, namely the United States. The influence of the Hebrew Bible on American history – carried by the Pilgrim Fathers and reiterated in presidential rhetoric ever since – was decisive. Here is how one writer described the faith of Abraham Lincoln:

We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world. Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity, the soul of the body politic. They make the American nation unique, and uniquely valuable, among and to the other nations. But the other side of the conception contains a warning very like the warnings spoken by the prophets to Israel: if we fail in our promises to each other, and lose the principles of the covenant, then we lose everything, for they are we.

Covenantal politics is moral politics, driving an elemental connection between the fate of a nation and its vocation. This is statehood as a matter not of power but of ethical responsibility.

One might have thought that this kind of politics robbed a nation of its freedom. Spinoza argued just this. “This, then, was the object of the ceremonial law,” he wrote, “that men should do nothing of their own free will, but should always act under external authority, and should continually confess by their actions and thoughts that they were not their own masters.” However, in this respect, Spinoza was wrong. Covenant theology is emphatically a politics of liberty.

What is happening in Vayikra 26 is an application to a nation as a whole of the proposition God spelled out to individuals at the beginning of human history:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Gen. 4:6-7)

The choice – God is saying – is in your hands. You are free to do what you choose. But actions have consequences. You cannot overeat and take no exercise, and at the same time stay healthy. You cannot act selfishly and win the respect of other people. You cannot allow injustices to prevail and sustain a cohesive society. You cannot let rulers use power for their own ends without destroying the basis of a free and gracious social order. There is nothing mystical about these ideas. They are eminently intelligible. But they are also, and inescapably, moral.

I brought you from slavery to freedom – says God – and I empower you to be free. But I cannot and will not abandon you. I will not intervene in your choices, but I will instruct you on what choices you ought to make. I will teach you the constitution of liberty.

The first and most important principle is this: A nation cannot worship itself and survive. Sooner or later, power will corrupt those who wield it. If fortune favours it and it grows rich, it will become self-indulgent and eventually decadent. Its citizens will no longer have the courage to fight for their liberty, and it will fall to another, more Spartan power.

If there are gross inequalities, the people will lack a sense of the common good. If government is high-handed and non-accountable, it will fail to command the loyalty of the people. None of this takes away your freedom. It is simply the landscape within which freedom is to be exercised. You may choose this way or that, but not all paths lead to the same destination.

To stay free, a nation must worship something greater than itself, nothing less than God, together with the belief that all human beings are created in His image. Self-worship on a national scale leads to totalitarianism and the extinction of liberty. It took the loss of more than 100 million lives in the twentieth century to remind us of this truth.

In the face of suffering and loss, there are two fundamentally different questions an individual or nation can ask, and they lead to quite different outcomes. The first is, “What did I, or we, do wrong?” The second is, “Who did this to us?” It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the fundamental choice governing the destinies of people.

The latter leads inescapably to what is today known as the victim culture. It locates the source of evil outside oneself. Someone else is to blame. It is not I or we who are at fault, but some external cause. The attraction of this logic can be overpowering. It generates sympathy. It calls for, and often evokes, compassion. It is, however, deeply destructive. It leads people to see themselves as objects, not subjects. They are done to, not doers; passive, not active. The results are anger, resentment, rage and a burning sense of injustice. None of these, however, ever leads to freedom, since by its very logic this mindset abdicates responsibility for the current circumstances in which one finds oneself. Blaming others is the suicide of liberty.

Blaming oneself, by contrast, is difficult. It means living with constant self-criticism. It is not a route to peace of mind. Yet it is profoundly empowering. It implies that, precisely because we accept responsibility for the bad things that have happened, we also have the ability to chart a different course in the future. Within the terms set by covenant, the outcome depends on us. That is the logical geography of hope, and it rests on the choice Moses was later to define in these words:

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. (Deut. 30: 19)

One of the most profound contribution Torah made to the civilization of the West is this: that the destiny of nations lies not in the externalities of wealth or power, fate or circumstance, but in moral responsibility: the responsibility for creating and sustaining a society that honours the image of God within each of its citizens, rich and poor, powerful or powerless alike.

The politics of responsibility is not easy. The curses of Vayikra 26 are the very reverse of comforting. Yet the profound consolations with which they end are not accidental, nor are they wishful thinking. They are testimony to the power of the human spirit when summoned to the highest vocation. A nation that sees itself as responsible for the evils that befall it, is also a nation that has an inextinguishable power of recovery and return.

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  • Genghis Cohen

    Happily, the security of Israel is not based on a delusion, according to a statement by Benjamin Netanyahu. If it was, the enemies of Israel would have swarmed across the land decades ago.
    Unhappily, far too many people reject the evidence of physical reality in order to hang on to a self-serving delusion, as is the case of religion’s priesthood, for WITHOUT THE PRIEST OR THE PROPHET TO GIVE VOICE TO WORDS ALLEGED TO YAHWEH, OR JESUS OR ALLAH, THESE ALLEGED GODS ARE SILENT.
    We are designated as Homo sapiens by science as the result of the evolutionary process of Natural Selection. Our success as this species is evidenced by our growing numbers since winning the freedom to be our own masters, just as Spinoza believed.
    The greatest challenge remaining before peace and security can be permanent is to cure humanity of its artificially-created habit of dependence upon delusion. Humanity is a dynamic species that historically fleas from bondage whether it is called a theocracy or a socialistic “republic.” America was founded by Naturalistic Deists who had fled the carnage of Christian Europe. All of the Founding Fathers descended from these Deists. Continued survival in the Nuclear Era requires delusion-free governance. Will priests help or hinder survival?

    • Irfan

      Homo sapiens…?

      “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

      Origin of Knowledge is religion, Even the whole evolution of Economy / society was impossible without “Religion”

      God sent messengers to many Nations, its language issue every nation know God with different names.

      and about your last word “Survival”
      Now Scientist know “time”, and there is end of time also..!

      study why we there is end of time?
      Then you may have your answer, why you came into being?

  • Yale

    “In the face of suffering and loss, there are two fundamentally different questions an individual or nation can ask, and they lead to quite different outcomes. The first is, `What did I, or we, do wrong?’ The second is, `Who did this to us?’ It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the fundamental choice governing the destinies of people.”

    This is a false choice. Reality consists of times when people bring problems upon themselves and times when others are responsible. Adults know this. The problem is to know how to tell the difference.

    • Jake

      You are missing the point. The term “we” can mean the specific people who were harmed, the people as a whole, or all people including those that inflicted the harm. On some level, it is always “our” fault. Today we seek unity and self-awareness among our respective groups. This is a noble goal in the interim, but the ultimate goal is to create a critical mass of groups that are unified by the same Divine principles, so that humanity as a whole can be unified and take responsibility for its common future.

  • Julian Clovelley

    What then if we take away that covenant, and even that concept of an intervening God? Do morality, justice, and the concept of human rights and virtue cease to exist? Of course not.

    Is the covenant the product and gift of the Creator or is the Creator in fact the human product of a covenant that is a human artefact? As Omar Khyaam put it “who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?”

    I put it to you that morality, justice, virtue, human rights are not the products of a hermit – not even a hermit God. They are the products of consensus. Where that consensus is between a limited group of powerful individuals, the social manifestation of that consensus can only be one that is enforced. Such societies have the political structure of monarchy or dictatorship. But where the moral consensus seeks to dominate even its own monarchic or authoritarian political creation, that consensus will seek to conceal its operations behind a hiding wall of invented religion. That religion is likely – for the purpose of appeal – to be constructed out of pre-existing superstition and myth. But these sources will be recomposed and reconstructed to suit the new political purpose. history is replete – to the reasoning mind – with such examples.

    The writer here argues “To stay free, a nation must worship something greater than itself, nothing less than God, together with the belief that all human beings are created in His image. Self-worship on a national scale leads to totalitarianism and the extinction of liberty.” and he seems to ascribe the deaths of 100 million people in the twentieth century to that dynamic.

    That is the core of Fundamentalist thinking, and to the thinking of the Christian Right. Fundamentalism and its bastard offspring of modern Conservatism seeks to replace logical thinking and scholarship with faith. How is this different from the National Socialist concept that the beauty of a political and social millennium is the Triumph of The Will and that this is achievable only by the deliberate repression of opposition and the elimination of those whose persona do not fit the new morality.

    If morality, justice, human rights and virtue are actually the product of consensus – and this would rather agree with the Platonic search for such items, for his works are largely presented as Dialogues between several people – then it is the composition of the consensus that will decide the nature and power of the resulting values

    This is the strength built into true Representative Democracy. But do our champions of virtue seek to build and strengthen that essential tool for the construction of morality? – Far from it, indeed they use religion largely to deny it. What we have instead is a structure of corrupted presentation of the appearance of democracy concealing rigid class and wealth structures ameliorated only by a patronising and limited philanthropy.

    Conservatism is correct in its assertion that we live in an increasingly amoral society. What it fails to grasp is that it itself is the cause. Reliance on an exterior value source instead of a wide consensus-created one means that when reason unseats the created Deity the values are themselves displaced.

    What would Plato have said? I think he would have said ‘first remove the dictatorship and then restore the dialogue and extend its input and reach” But the message of Plato reaching out over two and a half thousand years is that when you seek to that a Conservative society will malign you, defame you, accuse you of sacrilege, and even in extreme old age it will assassinate you using the power of its stolen and distorted justice exercised through the forces of the State it has morally corrupted

    Socrates said “”We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

    Once religion may have been the light that people validly followed. It had its role in the evolution of human consciousness. But that role has been superseded for thousands of years and the religious view has become a burden in our search for a truly moral and value based society. The reality of religion has long been in the massacres that continue worldwide as people seek to obey God where he is not to be found.

    The American emotional defence of Democracy is an action of virtue. What a pity that through Conservatism it does not exist to protect.