Nearly all of us grew up with the laws of nature. Put your hand in the fire and you get burned. Jump off the Empire State Building and you’re the next day’s litter for the neighborhood cats. Take a bath off Three Mile Island and you might glow in the dark. Some of us learned through others; some needed to undergo the experience themselves.
Then, there are the most subtle laws of nature. They apply to the Jewish people, and they are most vulnerable to the consequences of ignoring these laws. In this week’s Torah Portion, Moses informs the Jewish people that one of the first things they will do when they enter the Land of Caanan is hear the dos and don’ts of national and personal survival. Observing the laws will bless every area of life; violating the laws will bring curses. G-d doesn’t say a word throughout, rather leaves the job to his prophet.
“And it will be if you listen to the voice of G-d, your G-d, to observe and perform all of the commandments that I command you today, and He will place you over all the nations of the earth. And all of these blessings will come to you and stay with you, because you have listened to G-d, your G-d.”
To many Jews, this is grating. Why does G-d give us all these rules and spell out all of these consequences, when the gentiles seem to be off the hook? Take the land of Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola: The lion’s share of territory was stolen from the Indians. Some 200 treaties were signed and then broken by the white man. They enslaved and lynched the blacks; sent tens of thousands of Japanese to concentration camps and was the only country in the world to use nuclear weapons against civilians. Similar arguments can be made about China, Russia, Iran and yes, even Germany. And we don’t seem them as cursed.
The short answer is that the Jewish people live and die by a different set of rules. When they follow those rules G-d places them “over all the nations of the earth.” And when they don’t, the Jews stand defenseless against those same nations.
Moses might call them blessings and curses, but as we will see in the portion three weeks from now, they actually represent the difference between G-d’s halo and the absence of divine protection. In the Torah’s words, G-d watches the ingratitude of a people and says, “I will hide my face from them. We’ll see what will be their end. Because they are a contrary generation.”
At that point, all of the blessings that the Jewish people enjoy disappear and turn into horror. When the Jewish people jettison G-d’s laws, they face not the laws of man but the law of the jungle. What happens to the last of the litter? He dies. Animals prey on the weak, and man unrestricted by the laws of G-d are no different.
The most amazing thing about the law of the jungle is that endangered species will not help their own. So, when a lion emerges from the trees and attacks a group of zebras, cows or giraffes, they will all try to flee. Rarely, if ever, do you see those threatened unite and protect the group from the lone, albeit powerful, enemy.
That is the worst of the curses; the breakdown of Jewish society into individuals, all determined to save themselves rather than help each other. “G-d will cause you to be broken before your enemy: you will come out against them in one direction, but you will flee from them in seven directions. And you will become a terrifying [example] to all the kingdoms on earth.”
Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, the 13th Century commentator known as the Ramban, gives us a history lesson of what it means to abandon G-d. The Ramban takes us back to the period before the destruction of the Second Temple. The Romans ruled the land but maintained a Jewish quisling regime led by King Agripas, born Marcus Julius Agrippa, named after a Roman statesman. Like the rest of his family, Agripas was an imposter, the descendant of slaves who had overthrown the Hasmoneans and then claimed their lineage. He was educated in Rome with the cream of society, including the future emperor Claudius. He was extravagant, corrupt and deeply in debt, which resulted in repeated imprisonment. But he was completely loyal to Rome and eventually was given rule over most of the Land of Israel. He was given the title “Agripas the Great,” and even called a god. With help of his Roman sponsors, Agripas eliminated any rivals from within, including his uncle Herod Antipas.
But the good times didn’t last. Agripas died at 54 and his son Herod Agripas watched how his kingdom was invaded and eventually destroyed by Rome’s Aspanius and Titus. Jerusalem was besieged and starved. The surviving Jews became slaves of Rome and its mercenary armies, with many taken to Egypt. Agripas II just stood by, hoping he would remain alive as Rome’s quisling. Eventually, Agripas, along with his sister, became a captive, taken to Rome and given a fictional army command.
And this is where we stand today — under Roman occupation in which the names of the occupiers change but the servitude remains the same. The occupiers relay orders, summon the Jewish leaders and always make them wag their tails in appreciation of their sponsors. This is the greatest of curses: The loss of Jewish dignity.
But that is not the end of the story. Even in our most dire of straits, G-d keeps encouraging us to return. “And G-d has selected you today to be His treasured people…to make you supreme above all the nations that He made…so that you will be a holy people to G-d, your G-d, as He spoke.”
Once a Jew respects the laws of nature, he begins his ascent. There is no waiting period: The Jew either falls or rises There has been no people in the history of the world, who a year after their near-extermination successfully revolted against one of the most powerful countries in the world. There is no precedent to a besieged people who destroyed five enemy militaries in six days. There is no other nation that is limited only by its fear and flattery of the gentile.
The Jewish month of Elul is allocated for repentance. Unlike the rest of the year, G-d leaves His palace to receive our repentance. When we repent, we unify; we become G-d’s people; we bring light to the world. That is our laws of nature.