When bad thoughts happen to worse people
Shortly after Ariel Sharon was felled by a massive stroke, I wondered how long it would take before someone would say it was a case of divine punishment.
Not very long at all, it turns out. Just days after the stroke, television evangelist Pat Robertson suggested that God was punishing Sharon for dividing Gods land. Meanwhile, some kabalistic right-wingers in Israel said the stroke was the result of a curse they put on the prime minister this summer.
I was ready to dismiss these as fringe comments Robertson, for example, only speaks to an audience in the hundreds of thousands. Okay, forget that. I was ready to dismiss these as fringe comments because condemnation of Robertson came from across the political and religious spectrum. Even from his hospital bed, Sharon was managing to forge a new middle ground.
I couldnt quite let it go, however, after I heard from an old acquaintance who surprised me by agreeing with Robertson. The alternative, he wrote, is to assume a world which is run by no one and in which there is no final accounting for ones action. I dont know whether youre more or less comfortable in a world construct in which actions bear divine consequences. I think we dont have enough of those. I pray daily for the wicked to be punished and the righteous rewarded.
So when I see Bush experiencing a dramatic collapse within days of the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif, I count it as divine punishment. And when I see the Jewish leader who collaborated in this expulsion getting a massive stroke shortly thereafter, Im free to see it as divine punishment.
I immediately responded that Id much prefer the alternative a world without a final accounting if it meant never having to hear comments as grotesque, presumptuous, smug, and convenient as that. But thats glib. Because my interlocutor, yeshiva-educated and articulate, went on describe what he called the finer points of Jewish faith, which say that there is such a thing as consequences for our actions.
I know that this belief in sahar vonesh bolam hazeh reward and punishment in this world is normative in Jewish tradition. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan put it this way: Although the main reward for good is not in this world, God does give some compensation here in order to encourage the righteous by showing them that good is rewarded.
Similarly, God punishes the wicked in this world as a warning to themselves as well as to others who would be tempted to follow after them.
Whats more, its a basic human impulse to believe that the good will flourish and the bad will suffer, if not in this world than the world to come.
But there is another basic and accepted component of our belief system, according to a very sensible statement on Robertsons remarks by the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. No person can know G-ds reasons for human illnesses or calamities, said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. That G-ds ways are often inscrutable is a basic and accepted component of our belief system and that of the worlds great religions.
Robertson and his ilk feel they have surprise, surprise a direct line to God, or at least a monopoly on the interpretations of the messages God has already given us. I know it shouldnt surprise me at this point, but its the lack of humility shown here that makes my jaw drop.
I prefer the idea articulated by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and others that the idea of sahar vonesh is less about making us feel better about the suffering of our enemies than about goading us to mend our own ways. I like the Jewish prayer that includes, May You not take us from this world before our time, before completion of our years
so that we can rectify anything that we have ruined.
The Jewish tradition of divine reward and punishment is part of who we are. I just object to any one individuals willingness to do a ventriloquist act for God and ascribe his or her own self-serving and presumptuous interpretation of anothers life and legacy to divine punishment.
Besides, Im not exactly sure what the divine punishment is in Sharons case. If an angel came to me tomorrow and said I would live to be 77, despite being morbidly obese, and with the opportunity to fulfill my grandest ambitions up until the moment I am to be felled by a swift and mercifully devastating stroke, I think Id breathe a sigh of relief.
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