I’ve never subscribed to the idea that illness and misfortune are Divine retribution for sins, and while our sacred texts–especially the Prophets–clearly relate bad things that happen to the people Israel’s sinful behavior, I don’t feel Jewish theology supports this. After all, God created humanity with the freedom to choose, and as Rabbi Leo Baeck z”l was quoted as saying, “Evil is the result of God giving man free will, and then dignifying him by not interfering.”
It’s a way of saying “stuff happens,” and it may or may not be something we brought on ourselves. If we dig around trees where we know there’s poison ivy, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if we break out in a rash, but other times, the source of that rash or affliction isn’t so obvious. What’s going on here?
First, let’s look at this week’s haftarah for Behar-Bekhukotai, which comes from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus said the Lord: Cursed be the man who trusts in humans, and makes mortal flesh his strong arm, and from the Lord his heart swerves.” (17:5, Robert Alter translation).
In his commentary on this verse, Rabbenu Bachya (Spain, 14th c) quotes Midrash Tanchuma on parashat Tazria, and asks an interesting question with respect to the opening verses (Lev. 13:1-2): The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection….”
He asks, “Why has this paragraph not been introduced by the customary: ‘speak to B’nai Yisrael; saying: if a person has such and such symptoms, etc.?’” The absence of this introductory formula is to teach you that it is not the Lord who initiates afflictions as we know from Psalms 5:5, ‘for You are not a God who desires wickedness, evil cannot abide with You;’ King David (who is credited with composing the Psalms) does not belabor the obvious; he speaks about God having no desire to make any creature guilty of anything.”
It’s interesting to note that when Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after “speaking against Moses’ Cushite wife,” the text never tells us that God caused the affliction as punishment (though we can certainly read it that way), it merely states what happened. (Num. 12:10)
You might be wondering, what’s the connection between the plague of tzara’at (skin affliction) which comes in a previous Torah reading, to the concept of trusting in God and not in people? Part of Jeremiah’s prophecy has to do with admonishing Israel’s leaders about not forming alliances with other nations who can’t be trusted to come to its aid, so in that context, this verse makes sense, but there’s more to it, and the question is, Do we really need to choose?
Bex Stern Rosenblatt, in her d’var haftarah for this week, tells us that medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak) sees a middle ground. He doesn’t read the blessing and the curse as an either/or, but reads the blessing back into the curse. Radak tells us that “If he does not ‘turn his heart from God,’ he is not wrong if he trusts that humans will help him, if his intention is that with God’s help humans can help him.” What a powerful statement… it reminds me of the joke about a man who drowns in a floor because he refused the rowboat and helicopter that came to save him, insisting that God would save him. And when he stood in front of his Creator, God said, “I sent you a rowboat and a helicopter, what more did you want?”
God wants the Divine self and name to be associated with what is good and positive, for blessing and not for curse, and for us to take responsibility for our and others’ welfare. God created humans to be partners in creating a better world, and we need to be able to rely on each other, on other people, to help us and support us and to make our lives livable. However, we have been given the ability to learn and to discern, to choose good and life, and to make positive choices for ourselves and for the good of the society as a whole.
As Rosenblatt notes, “Radak redeems humanity, giving us a chance to trust in ourselves so long as we know that God underlies it all. Choosing good and life in Radak’s world is still choosing God.”
May we be blessed to live securely, trusting ourselves and trusting that together, we bring the Shekhina, God’s Divine Presence, into our lives and our world.