Parasha BeChuKoTai

IF…..This week’s sermon is a meditation, of sorts, on the first word of our weekly parasha. It is a small word in Hebrew, only two letters – eem. The equivalent in English is “if”.
A review of a new book entitled Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War l – appeared in the May 9 edition of the Jewish Forward. It was written by Ned Lebow, a professor of international political theory at Kings College, in England. The book explores the following question – how would history have been different if Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne, had not been assassinated on June 28, 1914, one hundred years ago next month. The assassination of the Archduke is widely thought to have lit the match that set off World War l. Had the Archduke lived, he would have succeeded his father two years later as Emperor of the Austrian-Hungary Empire.   Professor Lebow maintains that Archduke Ferdinand, a man committed to peace, would have found a way to avert World War 1. 
According to the book review, Professor Lebow outlines not one but two separate scenarios that stem from the avoidance of World War l. The first scenario leads to a better world than we have today, the second leads to a worse world.  Had war been averted, according to the better scenario, Hitler would not have come to power, and the Holocaust would never have happened.  Had the Holocaust never happened, according to this scenario, there would have been insufficient immigration to Israel by Jews, tensions between Arabs and Jews in Palestine would have been muted, Britain would have been able to contain both Arab and Jewish national aspirations, and Israel would not have come into being. Not so much a “better” scenario? Professor Lebow also presents a scenario where both the Holocaust is avoided and Israel becomes a Jewish state.  The “worse” scenario, by the way, culminates in a European nuclear war.
As it often happens, there is a personal story behind Professor Lebow’s interest in the “ifs” of history. As an infant in Paris in 1942, he was about to be deported to Auschwitz with his mother when she handed him off to a courageous French policeman.  The policeman brought him to a group of French Jewish women who were active in an underground movement to ferry Jewish children abroad to safety. He was eventually adopted by a family in the United States. “If” his mother had not handed him to the policeman, his own story may very well have ended in 1942. Who among us has not been intrigued by the “ifs” in our own personal lives?
Our Parasha for this week opens with the word “if”. G-d says the people of Israel, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe my commandments, I will grant you your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit ….. You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.”  The parasha continues in this way for ten more verses before turning to the other side of the coin – the consequences if Israel does not follow G-d’s laws and faithfully observe G-d’s commandments. In these verses, instead of the guarantees of blessings we have warnings. The Torah is trying to instill the “fear of G-d” into us as it lists the horrible consequences if we do not follow G-d’s commandments.
If it were only so simple!  Were it only that if one followed the commandments one’s life would be blessed, and if not, one would suffer. King David, for example, despite his flaws, was one of history’s most righteous individuals, but, did he ever have Tsuras in his life!  There is a story told of King David in the Book of Samuel. His beloved son, Absalom, mounts a military rebellion against him. I suppose unlike the present British royal Prince Charles, Absalom could not wait to be king! Absalom gathers a powerful military force and is about to march on Jerusalem.  King David and those loyal to him flee the city, the Holy Ark of the Covenant in tow. Now in the countryside, David tells Zadok, the High Priest, to return the Holy Ark to the city. “If I find favor with the Lord,” says David, “He will bring me back and let me see it in its abode. And if G-d should say, ‘I do not want you as King’, I am ready – let Him do with me as He pleases.”
David will do what he can to regain his Kingship. Unlike the Archduke, David will survive and return to the throne.  But he is also aware that his efforts will be in vain IF G-d no longer wants him to be king. He is prepared for that eventuality. Ultimately, he accepts that his fate is in G-d’s hands.
We must also accept that our fate is ultimately in G-d’s hands.  As human beings there are but a few things we can control in our lives. There is much we cannot.  We should endeavor to be open and honest with others, but we cannot control their actions and reactions to our efforts. We can and should watch what we eat to maintain our health, but we cannot control our genetic makeup which may lead to disease. We can and should get a good education to prepare ourselves for productive work, but we are buffeted by larger economic and political forces that determine whether or not we will find the work we want – or work at all!  We can, and should, live virtuous lives by performing mitzvoth – but blessings as a result are not guaranteed.  No wonder the sages startlingly concluded, that contrary to our Torah portion, “there is no reward for performing mitzvahs in this world.” The reward for the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself, they maintained, the good feeling one gets for doing it, the satisfaction one derives from fulfilling G-d’s will.  If that is the totality of our reward, I believe it is reward enough.