Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ha'azinu - God's Perfect Justice

Parshas Ha’azinu is the last Torah reading before Simchas Torah, when we complete the yearly cycle and begin again from Genesis. This short parsha is almost entirely taken up by the poetic song of Moses, in which he prophetically describes the history of the Jewish people as God’s chosen nation. He describes how God chose the Jewish people as His own and brought them to their land, where they dwelt in prosperity until their sins caused them to be exiled. He describes the terrible travails of the exile and the gloating of their enemies. And he describes how, ultimately, God will relent towards His people and punish those who persecuted them.

Moses introduces the song with a very famous verse (Deuteronomy 32:4):
הצור תמים פעלו כי כל דרכיו משפט, א-ל אמונה ואין עול צדיק וישר הוא:
“The Rock, His deeds are perfect, for all His ways are justice; a God of faith and without injustice, He is just and upright.”

R' Yisrael Meir Kagan
The Chofetz Chaim
The Chofetz Chaim, R’ Yisrael Meir Kagan (d.1933) asks (חפץ חיים עה"ת) how we can say that God’s deeds are perfectly just when we frequently see in the world around us what appears to be obvious injustice, such as truly righteous people who are impoverished or suffer in other ways.

The Chofetz Chaim answers with a parable:
There was once a very wealthy man who had a son who suffered from a terrible illness. They went to many doctors but all of them had given up on the child. Finally, they found a very skilled doctor who was able to heal the child. The doctor told the father that he must be very careful not to allow his child to eat any rich food, for such foods were extremely dangerous for the child.
Some time later, it happened that the child stole a piece of meat from his mother’s plate and ate it. Soon he was once again on the verge of death. His father rushed him back to the special doctor. He begged the doctor to save his son, and he promised that they would take extra steps to ensure that this could never happen again.
With great effort, after a long time and much difficulty, the doctor was able to bring the child back to health. The father made a great feast to celebrate his child’s recovery. When the young boy smelled the food from the feast, he came into the dining room to join the feast. His father quickly grabbed him, and despite his son’s loud cries of dismay, removed him from the room. The guests were shocked at the “cruelty” of the father, not to allow his son to participate in a feast made in his honor. Only the father understood the necessity of what he had done.
Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim explains, sometimes God places difficulties on a righteous person that seem unfair. In reality, however, they are for the benefit of the righteous person. Even though we are not able to understand God’s reasons in these matters, we must have emunah – faith – that “The Rock, His deeds are perfect” and “all His ways are justice.”[1]

[1] In a footnote, the Chofetz Chaim expands on this theme in relation to the concept of gilgulei neshamot (literally, the “cycling of souls”, referring to the Jewish concept of reincarnation). We know that atonement for a sin between man and his fellow can only be achieved after the victim grants forgiveness to the sinner. Thus, if a person hurt another person in any way and died without getting forgiveness, he may be required to return to this world in order to appease his victim.

When the deceased person is informed that he will be required to return to this world, he will cry and bemoan his great sin and he will complain before the Heavenly court that God had placed him in an extremely difficult state, for he had been granted wealth and other blessings in his life, which had caused him to become arrogant and had led to his sinful behavior. He will beg before the court that, if he must return, he should at least be allowed to return as a poor, sickly, and insignificant person, so that he would be less likely to repeat his sin.

The accusing angels will argue to the contrary, that to properly atone for his sin, he must return to similar circumstances. The arguments will be placed before the court, and, after great efforts and prayer, the soul may indeed be granted its request and be sent down as a person doomed to suffer poverty and other afflictions.

Yet, when a person comes to this world, he has no knowledge or memory of the events that preceded his birth. He may well complain of his difficult lot in life, yet in reality these “difficulties” are actually the result of his own hard-fought victories.

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