Don’t Get Distracted By the Messenger’s Ugly Face

**Lech Lecha**

Few things cause anxiety and depression as much as feeling unfairly assaulted.

Sometimes it’s easy to see how pain is necessary and even beneficial and sometimes it’s not. When there is no apparent benefit, one turns to faith: one may believe that it contains no benefit or one might believe that it does.

Why should and how can someone believe that the apparent injustices are for one’s benefit, beyond merely wanting to believe so, in order to mitigate the pain?

One approach is to think about the real cause of your suffering. If it were within the power of the individual to cause me harm, it would not necessarily mean that it is for my benefit. But since nothing happens by chance and it is G-d —the source of all good— who decided that I should suffer, it is therefore undoubtedly for my benefit, even if I don’t understand exactly how it is so.

And here we come to one of the most basic philosophical questions: how do you reconcile the two foundations of free will and Divine Providence? In other words, who has the ultimate say in what happens in the world, G-d or man? If G-d defines everything that happens, doesn’t that mean that Man is absolved from responsibility for his actions? And if it is Man who is responsible for his decisions, wouldn’t that imply that G-d does not control what happens in His world?

We find a possible answer to that enigma in this week’s Bible reading, Lech Lecha [1]. In its description of one of the most important events in our history, known as the Berit bein habetarim, or Covenant between the Pieces, the Torah [2] tells us how, among other things, G-d tells our patriarch Abraham that his descendants will go through a period of four hundred years of slavery, after which He will punish the perpetrators and his descendants will come out with great wealth.

One very simple question jumps out at me when reading this text: How is it to be understood that G-d says that He will punish the executors of His will? If G-d is the one who decides that Abraham’s descendants should go through a period of slavery, why should he eventually punish those who will end up enslaving them, thereby making sure that His decree was fulfilled?

One possible answer: Yes, G-d decided that the Jewish people should go through a period of slavery, but He did not decree which individual Egyptian should execute the decree. It was each individual Egyptian, on a personal level, exercising full free choice, who decided to raise his hand and smite the Hebrew slave and it was for that decision that he deserved to be punished.

This Biblical equation plays itself out constantly in our daily lives: G-d decides what will happen to each and every one of us but not necessarily who will be the executor. If G-d decides that I should lose $50, every human being now has the possibility to choose to steal it from me. He will be punished for the decision to transgress the prohibition against stealing, but if it were not for G-d’s decision that I must lose them, no one in the world would even be able to choose to transgress and steal them from me.

So the “tool” I extracted from this week’s Torah portion is: when something unpleasant happens to us in life, instead of getting angry with the circumstantial “messenger”, it helps to remember the true source and cause of the pain and that the purpose is —without doubt— for our benefit. The next step is to see if you can understand how to take advantage of the new reality for good.

  1. Génesis 12:1 – 17:27

  2. Ibid 15:13,14

First published in English on my blog at Times of Israel, November 7, 2019