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yesh omrim

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The worst punishment

14 May 2004

In this week’s parsha, we have the tochachah, the list of punishments for persistently refusing to follow God. This list does not only include physical and spiritual pain, but also emotional pain:

For those of you who are left, I will put fear in your hearts, while you are in your enemies’ homelands, and you will flee from them. You will run from the sound of a falling leaf as if running from a sword, without any pursuer. You will stumble over each other, as if from before a sword, without any pursuer, unable to stand up to your enemies. And I will sweep you away [from one another —Rashi] in your enemies’ lands, and your enemies’ homeland will consume you. (Leviticus 26:36–38)

A person can endure a tremendous amount of physical suffering, if they believe they are doing it for some higher purpose; if they are unaware of any other way to live, then they might not perceive it as suffering at all. On the other hand, someone who is not striving for any goals (perhaps because, as verse 15 says, they “detest My decrees and distance themselves from My laws”), or is acutely aware of how other people are doing better than themselves (perhaps because they are living in exile), can feel deprived even in the midst of luxury. As Paul Krugman observed: “I know quite a few academics who have nice houses, two cars, and enviable working conditions, yet are disappointed and bitter men–because they have never received an offer from Harvard and will probably not get a Nobel Prize.”

Most people who read this blog don’t long so acutely for a Nobel Prize, but we all enjoy a standard of living that, in purely physical terms, would be the envy of ancient kings. But this fact gives us little consolation. Whenever we look at the newspaper and wonder how secure we are, physically or economically, we are feeling one of the curses mentioned in this parsha. Because of our sins, we are not only cursed to live in exile, but to feel exiled. And for that reason, we should envy those Jews of ancient times who, if only for a few years, enjoyed the blessing “you shall eat your fill of bread, and live securely in your homeland” (26:5).