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Pounds of Flesh Into Pounds of Soul: A Conversion Scale

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

There are large sections in the Torah that are addressed to the Jewish body politic as a single, united entity rather than to individual Jews. The account of the blessings and the curses on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eival, and the 98 curses of the Tochahcha,the rebuke, are the subjects that take up the bulk of our parsha and belong to these public sections. The blessings and the curses of our parsha land on the doorsteps of individual Jews in their capacity as members of the Congregation of Israel. Individual merit or iniquity is not a factor.


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To be absolutely certain that there is no misunderstanding concerning the public nature of the consequences presented, the blessings and the curses are imposed in the context of a dramatic ceremony in which the entire Jewish nation actively participates. Six tribes on the peak of Mt. Grizim another six on the peak of Mt. Eival, answering "Amen" to the curses and the blessings uttered by the Levites positioned in the valley between.

The 98 curses listed in the Tochacha at the end of the Parsha are clearly addressed to the Jewish public regardless of individual merit. Most of them concern national calamities in which the righteous necessarily suffer along with the wicked. The death of the innocent and the righteous in the context of the actualization of the curses is taken for granted as a matter of course. Those who question God's attribute of Justice on the grounds of the undeserved suffering of the righteous in cataclysmic events such as the Holocaust have not fully understood the Tochacha.


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Moreover it isn't only those Jews who consider themselves members in the Congregation of Israel who are struck. Jewish history teaches us how very difficult indeed it is for individual Jews to opt out of the tragedies foretold in the curses. Voluntary assimilation and/or conversion have been tried all through history by large numbers of individual Jews as a means of escaping their Jewish destiny. Such attempts have generally met with mixed success at best. They tend to work in good times and break down when the curses kick in. The most recent case in point is the Holocaust.

The Nazis sent people whose entire connection to the Jewish people was a single Jewish grandparent to the gas chambers along with the racially 'pure.' Some of these 'Jews' were the descendants of individuals who had demonstrated their desire to opt out of their membership in the Jewish people by deliberately choosing to assimilate into the German 'volk.' Perhaps they dreamed of raising German rather than Jewish children. But when tragedy struck, it embraced these estranged Jews as well. The individual Jew is chained to his destiny and his people no matter how hard he tries to escape. He remains a child of Abraham regardless of being separated from the Jewish people by geography, irrespective of differences of culture, despite his lack of allegiance to the Jewish religion and its traditions, in the face of his determination to abandon any Jewish affiliation.

The immunity of the bond of Judaism to the forces of separation indicates that a Jew's connection to his people is spiritual rather than physical. It would appear that Jews share some sort of common soul. When your affiliation with your nationality is based primarily on geography and culture, it is easy to sever the bond by simply moving to a different portion of the earth and internalizing a different culture. A principle of unity that is based on a common soul is not as easy to dissolve. How does one distance oneself from his soul?


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One of the great ironies of Jewish history is the fact that the evidence of this indestructible quality of unity possessed by the Jewish people is provided by the curses the Jewish people have suffered as foretold in the Tochacha of our parsha during our long exile. The period of redemption that preceded it, the rosy portion of our history, showed the very opposite of unity. When we were a people in our own land, the outsider looking in at the Jewish people could have detected only dissension. During the first Temple period, Israel split into two separate warring nations, while tradition teaches that the second Temple was destroyed by the groundless hatred Jews felt toward each other.

It took the tragedies of Jewish history spread over our two thousand year Diaspora to confirm the existence of Jewish unity as a real phenomenon. These tragedies struck Jews of every stripe indiscriminately, whatever their level of commitment or estrangement from their Judaism. But the actualization of the Tochacha did much more than establish the unshakable unity of the Jewish people as an undisputable fact. The tragedies of Jewish history also reveal that Jewish unity is built on the perception by the rest of mankind of a shared spiritual quality among Jews. The recognition of such a common spirituality is the only way to account for the mysterious phenomenon of anti-Semitism, the virulent force that energized the actualization of most of the curses.

Discrimination against a social group is invariably associated with a clearly visible trait that sets the members of such a group apart. Thus racial discrimination is based on shades of skin color or shape of eyes; religious prejudice is caused by other forms of worship conducted in different churches to other gods; the intolerance of foreigners is prompted by differences in language and culture and so on. The great puzzle associated with anti-Semitism is that the prejudice against Jews has no visible marker that could serve as its trigger. Anti-Semitism survives total assimilation. Discrimination and persecution of Jews continues long after the Jews being persecuted have lost any obvious trait that can be used to distinguish them from their persecutors.


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Even a great miracle such as the splitting of the sea had to be triggered by some mechanism in the natural world:

"Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God moved the sea with a strong east wind all the night, and He turned the sea to damp land and the water split" (Exodus 14:21)

The sea didn't simply split; it was moved aside by the force of a powerful wind. Even if we regard anti-Semitism as a supernatural phenomenon it must have some mechanism that triggers it. There must be some way that Jews are identifiably different from the people who hate them. There has to be some apparently threatening factor that triggers the hatred.

We know it isn't physical. Jews have been hated and persecuted throughout history when they looked no different, acted no different and spoke no different from their host cultures just as much as when they wore markedly different clothes, lived apart and spoke a different language.

We know it is not behavioral. At times Jews were hated because they were too poor, at other times too rich; sometimes too clever, at other times too primitive; sometimes too pushy, at other times too obsequious; once we were hated for being stateless, now we are hated for the pride we take in our own country. There is no end to the contradictory and irrational causes that have been offered to justify anti-Semitism.

But if the trigger isn't physical or behavioral there is only one remaining alternative. It must be spiritual.

Only if we assume that Jews have a distinct quality of soul that sets them apart from the rest of humanity, a spiritual essence that other human beings are sensitive to can we come up with a trigger for anti-Semitism. The existence of this detectable spiritual quality also provides us with a key we can use to unlock many of the secrets of Jewish history. Without accepting the existence of this spiritual quality in Jews, we have no way to account for their unique status among mankind. For the non-Jew, discovering the underlying cause of anti-Semitism may not be very high priority, but for Jews it is crucial. Understanding anti-Semitism is the only way we can understand our history and come to terms with who we really are.


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True, the existence of this unique spiritual quality makes us 'chosen.' But how can the victim of thousands of years of apparently baseless persecution and prejudice be criticized for pointing out that he must have somehow been 'chosen'? He isn't just spouting hot air; the objective facts are there to support him. No other people have been persecuted so universally, so persistently or for so long. No one can deny that Jewish history has set us apart and made us demonstrably different from the rest of mankind. Our claim to be a 'chosen' people has been painfully substantiated by our history.

It is essential that all Jews recognize and understand this unique spiritual quality inherent in themselves. All the suffering predicted in the Tochacha, most of which we have already endured, was inflicted to drive home this one single message. The curses are not to be understood as punishments. They reflect the fact that we Jews differ spiritually from the rest of mankind; the sort of life-style that is appropriate for other people is so inappropriate for us. We are primarily spiritual; we need a Torah life style not only to earn our reward but because it is the only sort of life that suits us. We inevitably suffer when we attempt to live as others do.


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Now let us see how the existence of such a soul helps to explain much of our history. One of the miracles of this history is the phenomenon of Jewish survival. Without a country to call our own, scattered across the face of the globe among different peoples and cultures, often forced to abandon our homes and wander the world in search of a safe haven, we have not only survived intact, we have positively flourished. The Talmud, the major commentaries on the Bible, the Codes of Law, and the major works of Kabalah were all written in the midst of the turmoil and suffering of exile. Conditions that wreak havoc on the physical world and all that it supports lend extra strength to spiritual phenomena. The relationship between physicality and spirituality is identical to the relationship between Esau and Jacob; when one stands tall, the other falls. (Rashi, Bereishit 25:23) When physicality shrinks, spirituality expands.

There is no mystery to our survival. It is the body that is sensitive to geography and to physical privation and abuse. The soul, being immaterial, cannot be bound by physical space or subdued with beatings. Because the unifying factor implanted within the Jewish nation is spiritual rather than physical, it could not be extinguished by the tribulations of exile. The pattern was set long ago during the very first Jewish exile in the land of Egypt.

"But as much as they would afflict it, so it would increase and so it would spread out; and they became disgusted because of the Children of Israel" (Exodus 1:12)

The more they tormented the Jews, the more their population grew, infuriating the Egyptians further and leading up to the next stage of persecution. Nachmanides (Ibid.) remarks that the censuses of Bamidbar show that the population of the tribe of Levi was much smaller than that of the other tribes. He attributes this to the fact that the Levites, being the Jewish priestly class, were largely exempt from the harsh edicts and the forced labor imposed by the Egyptians on the other tribes.


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On a deeper level, the fact that Jews have come to possess this special spiritual quality perfectly accounts for the harshness of Jewish fate.

Extended periods of prosperity threaten Jewish survival in a way that persecution cannot.

"He would make him ride on the heights of the Land and have him eat the ripe fruits of the fields; He would suckle him with honey from a stone, and oil from a flinty rock; Butter of cattle and milk of sheep with fat of lambs, rams born in Bashan and he-goats, with wheat as fat as kidneys; and you would drink the blood of grapes like delicious wine."

The inevitable result?

"Jeshurun (another name for Israel) became fat and kicked. You became fat, you became thick, you became corpulent - and it deserted God its Maker and was contemptuous of the rock of its salvation" (Devarim 32:12-16)


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Spiritual life has its own internal rhythm. Man was created as a mixture of body and soul so that the spiritual light of Divinity could be allowed to shine in the furthest reaches of physicality. By expressing his soul in the physical activities required to fulfill the commandments of the Torah, man enables the light of his soul to penetrate deep into the world of physicality.

As we have explained, the spiritual essence of physicality is that it appears to be self-sufficient. Thus while the universe needs the constant ceaseless input of fresh Divine energy in order to continue in being, the physical world conceals this reality almost perfectly. Even the most gifted minds often fail to detect the guiding hand of God behind physical reality. Man was created with a soul and placed in this physical universe to expose the Divine light that keeps it running. In all the phenomena of the observable universe the single factor that cannot be explained in physical terms is man's soul. As we have shown, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism clearly demonstrates the existence of such a soul. Suffering its effects upon the Jewish people serve as a living manifestation of the existence of the soul.

But the positive is always stronger than the negative. As Nachmonedes points out, the existence of the spiritual world could be demonstrated just as well by the existence of a Jewish people who enjoyed a miraculous level of prosperity. If they were always victorious without suffering casualties against enemies with superior armies, if all Jews lived to a ripe old age, if no Jewish women were barren or miscarried, if there was never any drought in Israel and if the Jewish people enjoyed uninterrupted prosperity, they could demonstrate the existence of spirituality just as convincingly as by surviving the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism.

Because God's initial desire is always to express His traits of mercy and kindness, the Jewish people begins its mission of demonstrating God's light in the physical world by enjoying the miraculous level of benefits described in the blessings. But as physicality expands, spirituality contracts. To keep this from happening, physicality itself must be regarded as an expression of spirituality. Over time this becomes increasingly difficult, and the spirituality of the Jewish people begins to contract. As their connection to God becomes weaker, their prosperity and well being can no longer demonstrate God's light. If the recipient of God's bounty declares "My own power and the might of my hand has produced all this wealth" (Devarim 8:17) what should others say?

The wealth and prosperity of the Jewish people ends; the conditions described by the Tochacha kick in, causing the spirituality of the Jewish people to expand as their physicality contracts. As the spiritual aspect of the Jewish people expands, the sleeping forces of anti-Semitism awaken. The physical persecution of Jews grows more widespread. As the physical aspect of the Jewish people contracts further, the spiritual aspect of the Jewish people becomes markedly predominant. The unity and the spiritual uniqueness of the Jewish people become visible. The noticeable difference between social groups that inspires group hatred is fully triggered. Once again Jews demonstrate the existence of God's light in the physical world, this time through the miraculous power of their endurance.


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All too often it is the Jews themselves who are blind to their spiritual aspect, yearning to be no different than other people. It is presumptuous in the extreme to think of oneself as special or 'chosen' in some way, even if this quality of chosen-ness has been the source of great anguish. Tragically, many of us continually attempt to live according to a life-style that is based on a misapprehension of ourselves. Being unwilling to believe that we are different from other people, we refuse to live differently. We reject the Torah life-style that was especially designed to suit us.


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