This week Israel is drenched with the blessing of rain. Last week, the Chief Rabbinate announced that due to the drought, Jews were to insert an additional prayer for rain into their daily prayers. Thousands began petitioning God for rain last week. This week, the prayers were answered. At least, that is the way Jewish thought perceives the workings of the universe.
According to our tradition, there is an inseparable link between one’s moral behavior and physical reality. Moral decisions impact on meteorological reality. There is a drought, therefore we pray.
Although the connection between the physical and spiritual universe is not grounded in scientific empirical study, in fact, it is a cornerstone of Israeli policy and Jewish tradition. This week, the Middle East was rocked with earthquakes of significant magnitude. Turkey and Syria were at the epicenter of the quakes and thousands have been killed. Israel has sent search and rescue teams to assist in the tragedy.
The presence of Israelis in Turkey and Syria is undoubtedly a source of pride, as it is an expression of the Jewish State’s advanced medical development and an act of “tikkun olam,” attempting to repair an incomplete world. But is it sane? After all, Syria is an avowed enemy that maintains a state of war with us, and Turkey, at best may be a fair-weather friend. Let’s consider just a few of the declarations made by the leaders of these two regimes. President Bashar Assad of Syria has repeatedly accused Israel of supporting terrorist groups in Syria and of being behind the violence and unrest in the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has accused Israel of “state terrorism” and claimed that Israel’s actions in Jerusalem were a threat to peace in the region.
Does it make sense for Israel to invest millions of shekels and hours of skilled manpower in rescuing its enemies? The answer is yes, precisely because of the spiritual/physical connection upon which our tradition is based. Acting in a moral manner creates internal strength and enervates divine providence. When we take the moral high-road and offer medical services to suffering Turkish or Syrian citizens, we display the ultimate value of all human life. When God breathed life into the first man, he imbued all humans with His divine image. The rabbis of the Mishnah state clearly, “Whosoever preserves a single soul, scripture imputes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.” (Sanhedrin 4:5)
The paradox between human initiative and divine providence is complex. Dichotomous, black-and-white thinking would see all historical events as reflecting a solo performance starring either God or humanity. In fact, zealous representation of extreme religious or secular worldviews, have espoused the notion that either God or humans determine the course of human events. No less of a religious authority than Rabbi Eliezer Schach, head of the Ponovitch Yeshiva, cried tears of apprehension upon hearing in 1967 that the IDF had liberated Jerusalem and Hebron. “For 2,000 years we have been a sheep surrounded by wolves. Now, we have transformed into a wolf.”
On the other extreme, Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher provided the world with the “categorical imperative” that defines moral action. He stated, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” This means that individuals should act as if their actions were to set a precedent for everyone, and that they should not rely on divine intervention to determine their moral obligations.
In contrast to these soloistic views of history, authentic Jewish thought, has always viewed historical reality as reflecting a partnership between God and humanity. The Torah is replete with examples of our forefathers and mothers as actively intervening in and influencing historical events. An extraordinary exception is the narrative of the plagues that befell Egypt, when Israel simply observed the heroism of God. However, from the moment that Israel reached the banks of the Reed Sea, they were obligated to take action as God’s partner in the unfolding of history.
This notion is further reflected in the Jewish kabbalistic concepts of “Itra’atuta de le’tata” and “itra’atuta de l’eila.” The latter reflects historical events that are God’s initiative. The former reflects human initiative that forms a partnership with God in determining the course of world history. Accordingly, the Jew may still maintain the passivity of a sheep in terms of subjugating himself to God’s will, however, he needs to don the outer accoutrements of a wolf in order to actively partner in the historical process. In fact, this partnership is a direct corollary of our forefather Jacob, who after donning Esau’s clothing, had his father Yitzchak proclaim, “The voice belongs to Jacob, but the hands are those of Esau.”
Hence, the current Israeli rescue teams that have established humanitarian centers in southern Turkey and northern Syria are representing the Jewish way of partnership with God in order to help correct an imperfect universe. On the level of pure physical reality, it is true that they are healing citizens who may be psychologically manipulated into becoming our enemies. However, the power of the divine presence within man compels the Jew to act with compassion and divine partnership. The rabbis of the Talmud state clearly, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”
As I write these words, in Maaleh Adumim, a city several kilometers east of Jerusalem, the rain continues to pour outside, and I feel minor after-tremors of the quake that devastated Turkey and Syria. Both the rain and the tremors serve as potent reminders of our hidden partner.
Simcha Chesner received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Case Western Reserve University and has lived in Israel for the past 32 years. He is the founder and director of the Jacob’s Ladder schools and clinic for families coping with ADHD and associated disorders and a senior lecturer of psychology and education at Orot Teachers College.