In 1976, as a rookie reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, I stumbled upon a heartbreaking story which haunts me to this day.
At first glance, it may seem humorous, but upon closer inspection, it is tragic.
One morning, I sat before a Staff Sergeant of the Ottawa Police Department as he thumbed through the evening police reports. After a moment he pulled one from the pile and said, “This one may be of interest.”
The officer recounted the story of a man who, the previous evening, had attempted to rob a 7–Eleven store, but as he approached the counter, he tripped on a vacuum cord, fell on his face, and was captured soon after.
As he languished in the holding cell on the second floor of the police station, he noticed that the metal door had been left slightly ajar. As an act of complete despair, he slipped out of the cell, opened up the second floor window and jumped.
Unfortunately, as he plummeted towards the pavement, he landed on a senior police officer on his way to work, killing the man, while sustaining a broken leg himself.
At first, we both nervously chuckled: this must have been world’s worst hard luck story. But then I decided to dig a bit deeper.
As I would later find out, the unsuccessful thief, due to an economic downturn, had recently lost his job, and soon after, his marriage ended. Cut off from his children, he turned to alcohol. His attempts to receive social assistance had proven unsuccessful. His effort to rob the 7–Eleven was an act of total desperation.
I often wondered, in a story that as I recall was relegated to the bottom half of Page 8, whether this man’s life would have been any different without the economic downturn, or laws governing custody, or policies regarding social assistance.
As a novice reporter, I asked the question, “Did he deserve his fate?”
In fact, when anything good or bad happens to us, can we always trace it directly back to our behavior, whether good or bad?
This is a debate underscored by this week’s Torah reading, Bechukotai (“if you follow my laws faithfully”), which has existed within Jewish tradition for thousands of years.
This Torah portion states that, if we follow God’s laws, good things–food, rain, riches–will come to us. And if we don’t, the ground will cease to offer food, no rain shall fall, our enemies will devour us, and our homes and cities will be reduced to ruin.
We may scoff at this theology today, but when we think of it, doesn’t part of this debate remain?
Indeed, when illness (God forbid) strikes within a family, it is usual for everyone, especially that person stricken, to ask “Why did this happen to me?” We review our behavior, regret our sins, and attempt to find reason.
One of the most popular books on this topic was written in 1981 by Rabbi Harold Kushner titled When Bad Things Happen to Good People? It’s title represents perhaps one of the most central unanswered questions of our lives.
Conversely, we are often tempted to consider the opposite.
In recent years, a new and arguably perverted version of Christianity has surfaced: the so–called Prosperity Gospel, promoted by evangelists such as Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, who preach that the rich are rich because God approves of them.
So where do you stand?
The Torah seems to be declaring that there is a direct connection between our behavior and the circumstances we encounter. “Live well, and life will treat you well. Disobey God, and you will live a life of misery.”
But it that’s true, how can we reconcile the Holocaust with any individual or collective event, which may have preceded it?
As author Abigail Pogrebin posed during her podcast discussing Bechukotai with Rabbi Dov Lerner, “Why would God have to threaten you?” wondering whether there was a better, more enlightened way for God to encourage goodness.
But as Rabbi Dov Lerner responded,...“There are times when rules and consequences are important.”
So the discussion continues.
It is interesting, however, how Judaism has begun to revisit this ancient issue of black and white, reward and punishment.
For centuries, at the end of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), the liturgy has included a quote from the Psalms which reads, “I was once a child, and now I have grown older, and I have never seen a righteous person forsaken or his children lacking food.”
It’s a nice thought. Isn’t it true that a righteous person, one who is loved by their friends and community, will never go hungry – and will always be welcome at someone’s dinner table?
But let us consider the opposite. Is that to say therefore, that all the homeless people within our towns and cities, are guilty of some unrighteousness?
Is that the reason why so many war veterans, those fighting mental illness, those who can’t afford their medical bills, or are victims of abuse, are on the street?
It is why I rarely read this week’s Torah portion without thinking of the petty thief in Ottawa who tried to kill himself that day. Ultimately, life is about decisions, big and small, but how much of our lives depends on matters out of our control?
It is one reason that is in some contemporary or shortened versions of Grace After Meals, the reference to Psalm 37:25 is left out. There are many righteous homeless people, and we do not recite it in our congregation.
In a world which so much more complex than during biblical times, there is perhaps no straight line between our actions and our happiness.
Yes, those who live a righteous life – chances are – will experience more inner peace than those who embrace dishonesty. But there are many cases to disprove both.
The Torah message is quite simple this week: “Live well, and your life will be better.” But we add the asterisk, “There are no guarantees.”
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that a selfless, righteous, and moral life will get us further than the opposite, but as a more modern theology reminds us, much of our life is out of our control.
Perhaps part of the faith we need to muster to navigate this complex modern world is contained in the ]Book of Genesis, as we are often reminded during the story of creation, that “God saw all that was made, and it was good.”
Indeed, the world is based on goodness. And in the end, in spite of hurtful twists and turns along the way, as the great sage Rabbi Akiva advanced, “Gam zu l’tova. This, too, is for the good.”
Live life well. Do what’s right, for the sake of righteousness. And all will unfold as it is meant to be.
There is no real need to reward or punish. Only a lifelong commitment towards kindness – Judaism’s core value.
In spite of some evidence to the contrary, I like my odds better living the positive –– as opposed to the alternative.
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman