OCTOBER 7, 2023
IS THIS WAR
A DIVINE PUNISHMENT ?
Are we prepared to stand before G-d as Jews always did in times of trauma and affirm that our suffering stems from our deeds?
Every morning we check the news and discover a fresh set of smiling faces of the newly fallen soldiers, each seemingly more beautiful than the set of photos from the previous day, and the day before that. It could never happen to us; not to our generation. But ours is now a generation of collective Jewish suffering – like countless others before us.
Strikingly, though, our religious response to our suffering puts us at a divide from those who preceded us. From the Bible through the Shtetl our forefathers believed that when collective calamity befalls us, we must stand before the ALMIGHTY in recognition of our failings – our sins. But there is very little talk of “sin” as the cause of our current crisis, even within religious circles.
At every stage of our history, our greatest texts have affirmed that collective calamity is caused by our own misdeeds. Every story in the Bible where ISRAEL suffers teaches this lesson. The notion was codified by Maimonides: “It is a commandment from the TORA to cry out… over every calamity that befalls the community… for when calamity strikes and they cry out… all will know that it is because of their misdeeds that calamity has befallen them…. But if they say, ‘these events happen as circumstance and without higher reason,’ this is a cruel notion and leads them to continue in their sinful ways” (MISHNEH TORAH, Laws of Fasting 1:1-3). Nothing distinguishes Sephardic and Asheknazic liturgy more than the selichot, the penitential prayers recited in the season of the high holy days. Sephardic selichot speak about penance. Ashkenazic selichot speak about pogroms. And when the poets of Eastern Europe wrote these selichot they everywhere punctuated their pleas for salvation with an admission of their sins: “Purge us of sin, shelter us under your protection. Blot out our iniquities, cast them to the depths. Harbor and hide us within your tent.”
An endless list of sins
And yet we are uncomfortable thinking this way about our current crisis. For some, after the SHOAH it is no longer possible to speak about Jewish suffering as the result of sin. Others take offense at the notion that G-d would allow, let alone unleash, the mass atrocities witnessed on October 7th. Moreover, how are we to even know what our sins are? In biblical times prophets told ISRAEL what her sins were. But we have no such prophets today. In fact, if we take to heart that our own sins have brought about this war, we are doomed to engage in endless finger pointing. Do we suffer because we uprooted settlements from Gush Katif, or because we worked to weaken the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank? Is it because we haven’t done enough to secure rights for LGBTQ members of our society, or because we have normalized such identities? The list is potentially endless. We will affirm our own values with the assuredness that it is the others who are in the wrong.
Strikingly, none of these questions bothered our ancestors. Neither Maimonides nor the religious poets of Eastern Europe had the benefit of prophets identifying sins for them. And yet when calamity struck, they knew that they needed to approach G-d with an awareness that their sins had created their reality. What did they gain by doing so? What are we losing by not? Admitting our sins in times of collective trauma realigns our relationship with the ALMIGHTY in three important ways.
First, we have a tendency to view G-d as a Divine version of the shul candy man – he is benevolent always. We call to HIM and beseech his salvation, in the hopes that HE is there for us. Affirming that our actions are at the root of our reality reminds us that we have a responsibility to be there for HIM. Covenant is a two sided-relationship.
Second, viewing the war in this way is empowering. No one knows how or when this war is going to end. In the best scenario where Hamas is removed from power, none of us have a clue what pitfalls await Israel as it retains military control over the Gaza Strip for the foreseeable future. The situation nearly invites despair. But if we affirm, as our forefathers did, that our deeds control our destiny, then we proceed with the knowledge that if we right our own ship, the ALMIGHTY will ensure that our ship sails aright in the world as well. It is up to us.
Finally, admitting our sin before G-d is especially critical in an age of fragmentation such as ours. We are entitled, nay, mandated, to confess our sins to G-d for one another. In our age of endless ideological debates we can confess “the other side’s” sins. This sounds counter-intuitive but it is part of the warp and woof of our YOM KIPPUR prayers. We recite the lengthy AL-CHET prayer in which we enumerate our sins and beat our breast twice in each of the day’s services. In the silent AMIDAH we recite the prayer for our own misdeeds. And in the repetition of the AMIDAH, we recite the list for the sins of all of ISRAEL. In confession, as in destiny, all of ISRAEL are responsible for one another.
Deeds and destiny
But what sins should we acknowledge when there is no prophet to guide us? Maimonides believed that punishment comes to us by the natural consequences of our actions. If we drive unsafely, the accidents we cause are the natural consequence; they are our “punishment.” We are accustomed to taking stock of our individual behavior, but given the collective nature of our crisis, we need to take stock for ourselves how we may have contributed to the cultural winds that led us to this calamity; what are the collective attitudes that we may have helped foster. For instance: Did I believe and support radical overhaul of the judicial process on the barest of parliamentary majorities? Conversely, did I support volunteer reservists who suspended their service in opposition to the government’s proposed reforms? Did I demonize those who opposed my position? Did I understand the impact these positions would have on our national unity? Did I heed the warnings of the security establishment that these positions were eroding our deterrence as our enemies saw us tearing ourselves apart from within?
Some other questions to ask: Did I ascribe to the myth that, having managed the situation with the Palestinians for more than 50 years, we would be able to do so the same way for another 50? (Full disclosure: I did). Did I believe that we live in an age of Redemption, and therefore none of the horrors of the past could happen in our time? All of these dispositions are collectively held and may have contributed to our current crisis.
Presaging our request for salvation with admission of our guilt is central to our prayer AVINU MALKENU. Forty-three times we petition the ALMIGHTY in one-line requests, “Our FATHER, Our SOVEREIGN, grant us so and so.” But in the first line we make no request; we merely state: “Our FATHER, Our SOVEREIGN, we have sinned in Your PRESENCE.”
This is also the thinking behind the structure of the cornerstone of all our prayer, the daily AMIDAH. In its central section we recite thirteen passages or “blessings” of request. Salvation from our suffering and asking the ALMIGHTY to wage our battles is only the fourth of these blessings. First, we ask for Wisdom to make clear-headed choices. Then, with Wisdom in hand, we ask to be led back to the ways of the TORAH. Third, we ask the ALMIGHTY to forgive us our sins. And only once we’ve taken stock of our own shortcomings do we turn to him, “Look upon our affliction. Defend our cause and redeem us speedily… Blessed are You, Lord, the REDEEMER OF ISRAEL.”
Author: Joshua Berman, professor of TORAH at Bar-Ilan University
See also: Divine Benevolence and Rigor