From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Does it always go right for you if you are religious? Does frum equal good fortune?
“See, I give you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing that you will hearken to the commandments of Hashem your G‑d . . . and the curse if you do not and you stray from the path that I command you today to follow the gods of others . . .”
Do you actually believe these words from the opening verses of this week’s parashah? Are all righteous people blessed and all godless people cursed? Does it really work that way in the real world? The Talmud states categorically “the reward for mitzvot is not in this world at all.” Ultimate accountability is reserved for the World to Come.
What then is the Torah telling us here? Well, one answer may be that it is teaching us that living a G‑dly life is itself a blessing, and that leading a life where Hashem’s value system is irrelevant is itself a curse. Virtue is its own reward, and the reward for a mitzvah is in the mitzvah itself.
Perhaps once upon a time we needed faith to believe this. Today, I honestly think it is self-evident. In our generation, we see empirically that a life dedicated to Torah values is blessed and, sadly, other lifestyles bring the opposite of blessing in their wake. Let’s examine a few areas in society today and see if we can discern some truth in these verses.
Divorce. It is now some time since the Jewish community has reached the level par with the rest of the world in the divorce statistics. We, too, have passed the one-out-of-three rate, and virtually every other marriage is ending in divorce. Because of this unacceptably high failure rate, in my own community we have instituted successful marriage preparation programs for brides and grooms, which, thankfully, are making positive inroads.
However, if we look at the observant Jewish community, while there are indeed more divorces now than ever before, the rate is still way below the rest of the community. Now cynics may argue that it is because among religious people certain stigmas and taboos still exist and, therefore, a reluctance to split keeps people in unhappy marriages. I might agree to an extent, but I am convinced that there are many positive factors contributing to the higher success rate among observant couples.
To name a few: religious people share common values and aspirations. Many of the things others argue about are not issues of difference among observant individuals. Religious people are far from perfect but, statistically, they mess around a lot less than others. Shalom bayit is a religious imperative. A happy family life is a social necessity in religious communities. Then there are mitzvot that help in tangible ways. Just keeping Shabbat brings with it quality family time and togetherness in ways that would have necessitated heroic efforts to achieve otherwise. The mikveh directly impacts on marriages, enhancing the intimate relationship immeasurably.
Violent Crime. It is not unheard of for Jews to have been involved in white-collar crime. Fraud and embezzlement are not things we are proud of. But today, even violent crimes are being perpetrated by Jewish people in a way that was always foreign to our people. Road rage now happens in Israel on a regular basis. And there have been some highly publicized cases of Jew-on-Jew violence in the United States and Israel.
But in the religious community, while white-collar crime is unfortunately not unknown, violent crime is a rarity. When Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, it sent such shockwaves across the world not only because he was a Jew, but precisely because he was a kippah-wearing Jew! And the same can be said for other terrible murders that have been perpetrated by people who were members of the religious community.
Dennis Prager poses an interesting hypothetical question: If you were walking down a dark alley one night and saw three burly young men wearing leather jackets, sunglasses, and chains around their necks, you would no doubt be petrified, right? Now what if you were told that these young men had just come from a Bible class? Would you be alarmed or relieved? Perhaps in other faiths, religious fundamentalism breeds violence. With Jews it is the opposite. (Okay, I did hear of a case where a fellow in shul who didn’t get an aliyah punched up the gabbai! But you must admit that is an exception.)
Social Ills. While drug abuse and HIV/AIDS are not entirely unheard of, they are certainly the rare exception in religious circles. In the wider community, these scourges of our generation are affecting Jews in large numbers. We are, after all, totally integrated into the fabric of our society. Our degree of susceptibility depends almost entirely on the choices we make in schools and social environments.
Please don’t think me smug and condescending about religious people. There are no guarantees. Every individual faces the same challenges and choices in life. There are no clones in religious enclaves. And tragedy, G‑d forbid, can strike anywhere. If we are objective, though, we cannot dismiss these tangible pieces of statistical evidence that our parashah does have a point. That the G‑dly way of life is not only a pathway to Paradise in the Hereafter, but is in itself a blessing for us in the here and now.
If we want the blessings of this world for our families and ourselves, we should seriously consider a Torah lifestyle. The choice is ours. ϖ
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.