The second of this week’s parshiyot sets up a remarkably simple paradigm: if we do X, then Y will occur. Action leads to reaction; cause leads to effect. If you follow My laws and observe My commandments, Hashem tells us, great things will happen: you will have rain, crops, peace, all with Hashem in your midst. And the opposite is true too: if you don’t keep the laws, then (and we whisper or lower our pitch for this part) terrible things will happen. In Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Eugene Jerome explains that Jews whisper the names of diseases because we’re afraid God will hear us and give us those diseases. (I actually think we change the timbre as we read these verses in synagogue so people will pay closer attention.)
The parasha, however, speaks from a simpler time, where cause and effect were easier to connect. Today, people tend to see cause and effect through their own lenses: to some, forest fires or tornadoes are a result of climate change; to others, they are a result of the inadequate sweeping of forest floors. And furthermore, this model, when taken too far, leads to selfishness.
Pirkei Avot describes a person who takes care of their own and lets others worry about themselves, someone who says sheli sheli ve-shelcha shelcha, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” This is an extreme case of cause and effect. It makes sense as a way to live one’s life, and the mishna even considers this, briefly, as a “middle” way of behaving, a mida beynonit. But it isn’t really a recipe for success.
My teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l famously ascribed to Victorian critic Matthew Arnold’s view of literature: that it was educative and that it should be “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits…” Rav Lichtenstein encouraged us to read anything and everything of quality. But the rumor in yeshiva always was that Rav Lichtenstein forbade his students from reading one author: Ayn Rand. (This of course made a number of us rush to read her work, but that says more about us than it does about Rav Lichtenstein.) Rand (born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum to a Jewish family in St Petersburg), preached “Objectivism,” a philosophy that urged the individual to “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” In current terms, I heard of someone this week who asked why she needed to vaccinate if everyone around her had already done so. What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.
But the mishna explains that to live this way is midat Sedom, the way of Sodom, a city whose people did not have a happy ending. They each only cared for themselves, mocking and threatening those who offered hospitality to strangers. While something may seem utilitarian to us in the moment — sheli sheli, I will take care of myself, my people, my concerns, my assets, my interests — the mishna tells us is that ultimately this will not end well: it will end in fire and brimstone.
And the parasha offers hope as well. After the tochacha, after the long list of terrible punishments that will befall us if we don’t do mitzvot, Hashem makes a promise: Af gam zot, beheyotam be’eretz oyveihem, “yet even then, when they are in the land of their enemies,” lo me’astim ve-lo ge’altim lechalotam le-hafer beriti itam, “I will not reject them or spurn them to destroy them, to break my covenant with them…” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that this verse is the “birth of hope.” Despite these horrible punishments, God promises that He will not forget, and that He will always save us. This is what happened on June 5, 1967, when much of the Egyptian air force was neutralized on the ground in a series of miracles, bringing about the reunification of Jerusalem later that day. Hashem remembers us.
It’s easy (and natural) when we’ve been trying so hard for so long to keep safe, and when so many others seem to be acting recklessly or selfishly, to throw our hands in the air. To circle the wagons and think only about our own — ourselves, our families, our friends. But we should not; we cannot. We actually already know the lesson of midat Sedom: if every essential worker and medical provider chose to take care of his or her own interests and health, we would live in a vastly different world. But they did not, and we live, thank God, in a world of frequent chesed, not of midat Sedom.
As we look ahead to Shavuot and the summer, when time seems to stretch out a little longer, we need to seek opportunities to think beyond ourselves and to give to others. I know we can find them if we look hard enough.