Friday, May 20, 2011

May 21: The End of the World and This Week’s Torah portion

So I hear the world will be coming to an end tomorrow, according to all those rapturologists (see the website) who can’t even spell “Judgment Day.” If that is indeed the case, I hope the fire and brimstone holds off until we conclude tomorrow’s Torah reading, at the very least. Because tomorrow’s portion of B’hukotai contains one of the most apocalyptic sections of the entire Bible, a doomsday scenario of what will happen to the Israelites if they fail to live the holiness code laid out for them in the prior sections of Leviticus. These 33 vicious verses are known as the Tochacha (see more details here).

A little sampler:

26:15. If you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant,

16. I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you - consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for you enemies shall eat it.

17. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.

18. And if you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins. (Translation: JPS Torah Commentary, Etz Hayim)

But these verses take the cake:

30 And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your sun-pillars, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols; and My soul shall abhor you.

31 And I will make your cities a waste, and will bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors.

32 And I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies that dwell therein shall be astonished at it.

33 And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.

Pretty bad, so bad that it sounds almost like what some pundits are predicting will happen to Israel if it accepts the Obama parameters. But it still isn’t the end of the earth.

To make it clear, Judaism rejects these prophecies of doom, partly because they are directed in part against Jews (recalcitrant non believers that we are), but mostly because we’ve been there, and every time Jews and others have tried to predict when apocalyptic visions will be fulfilled, the result has been disastrous. Even from a Christian perspective, as this posting from Beliefnet shows, “there have been thousands and thousands of Christian predictions of the end of the world since Jesus’ time. None of them have been correct. NONE. Zero-for-thousands is a horrible batting average, and to think YOU are the only one who’ll be correct, in all the history of mankind, is the Mt. Everest of arrogance” (see other Beliefnet commentary on this here).

Judaism is a profoundly optimistic faith. It likes life, and this world, flawed though it may be, ain’t so bad after all. Look at how the commentators dealt with those foreboding verses. Like Monty Python, they were always looking on the bright side of life. So yes, we’ll be scattered among the nations, BUT…we’ll accumulate lots of frequent flyer miles! And, as the Talmud states, that way no one will be able to destroy us all at once. Yes, the land will be in total ruins, but then at least our enemies won’t enjoy the spoils – Rashi saw merit in that one.

The Maharal adds that Rashi was troubled by God’s saying “I” will bring the land to devastation. How could a God so full of lovingkindess do that? So for Rashi, this action must be guided by kindness.

Ramban gives historical elaboration: It’s true, God has indeed made the land a wasteland – the place has been a mess since we left it! He had seen it first-hand, having made that treacherous journey to the Holy Land. His feelings shared much later by Hovevey Zion and the early Zionists. The land would wait patiently in ruins for 2,000 for the redemptive hand of the Jewish people.

That theory of course presupposes that no one was actually living in the land at the time of the Jews’ miraculous return, which was a fallacy. Which brings us to current events.

So, to repeat, the world will not come to an end tomorrow. You can take it to the bank. But if you are not sure, why not come here to pray with us this Shabbat? The experience will be comforting as we read about…. all the disasters that await us.

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