Why is Israel God's "elected" nation? It can't be because we're better than other nations, because we have been reading (during the three Sabbaths leading up to the fast of Tisha Be'av) the prophetic portions in which Jeremiah and Isaiah thundered against us because of our immorality and hypocrisy. And it's not as though Israel had been a paragon of virtue in its early days. In these portions of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the backsliding of our people - from our worship of the Golden Calf (Ki Tisa) just 40 days after the Revelation at Sinai to all the complaints and rebellions against Moses (and God!) throughout the Book of Numbers. God could not possibly have been under any illusions about the moral quality of the family/nation that He had "chosen."
Were we then elected because we were "the least among nations," and the weakest in power, as the text cited above would suggest? What is the source of this "love" of which the Bible speaks? Can it be that the Creator fell prey to the totally arbitrary and irrational love which is the tragic undoing of so many of His creatures?
And furthermore, why refer to this Sabbath as the Sabbath of Comfort (Shabbat Nahamu)? It's clear from the prophet Zechariah (7, 8) from the legalist-philosopher Maimonides (Interpretations of the Mishna, Rosh Hashana 18) and from the Second Commonwealth historian Josephus that the Israelites continued to fast in memory of the First Temple throughout the period of the Second Temple. Can our generation's remarkable return to the Promised Land provide a reasonable response to the smokestacks of Auschwitz? So, from whence comes our comfort?
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits in his masterful work Faith after Auschwitz, cites a bold and startling passage (B.T. Yoma 69b) which sheds light on our questions:
"Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi [a survivor of the Second Temple devastation]: Why was our judicial synod called "Men of the Great Assembly"? Because they restored the (divine) crown to its pristine glory.
"Moses came and declared, 'the great, powerful and awesome God' (Deut. 10)
"Jeremiah came and declared, 'The gentiles have undermined the infrastructure of His Temple; where is His awesomeness?' And he deleted 'awesome' [from God's praises in the amida].
"Daniel came and declared, 'The gentiles are subjugating His children; where is His power?' And he deleted 'powerful' [from God's praises in the amida].
"They [the Men of the Great Assembly, who formulated our prayers] came and declared: 'The very opposite is the truth! Herein lies His power: that He conquers His instinct [to cut evil off at the pass before it wreaks its damage] and has patience for the wicked [to wait for them to repent and repair the world]. And herein lies His awesomeness: were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One Blessed be He, how could one [paltry] nation withstand and survive the nations roundabout?"
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's message is clear. God has created an imperfect world of freedom of choice, a seemingly absurd and lawless world in which individuals will do even that which the Almighty wouldn't want them to do (the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, the willful "contraction" of the Creator, as it were, in order to leave room for a finite world of free choice). As the prophet Isaiah (45:7) declares: "Creator of light and Maker of darkness, Doer of peace and Maker of evil, I am the Lord, the Doer of all these things."
God has confidence - and even guarantees - that eventually the wicked will repent, that human beings will succeed in perfecting this world in the kingship of the divine, that there will be a messianic period of world peace and prosperity (Isaiah 2, Micah 4, Zechariah 7-9). Hence God allows the world to proceed in accordance with its "customary way," without preventing stolen seed from taking root, or withering the hand uplifted to smite an innocent man. Hence, "there is no reward for commandments in this world;" only in the eternal world of souls and spirituality will there be proper rewards for deeds well done (B.T. Kidushin 39).
Israel plays a pivotal role in this drama. We are God's "holy nation and priest-teachers" (Sforno, ad loc.), the descendants of Abraham who chose God before God chose him, and who was guaranteed eternal progeny who would live in the Land of Israel and teach ethical monotheism to the world (Genesis 12:1-3)
Those who oppose ethical monotheism feel that might and not right, brute power and not love and morality must rule the world - from Pharaoh the despot of Egypt, to Hitler to radical Wahabi Islam. The very survival of Israel despite Egyptian enslavement and holocaust conflagration, and despite the fact that we are the smallest and weakest of all nations (indeed, for almost 2,000 years we were completely stateless), makes us God's witnesses, testifying that He is indeed a God of love and morality.
This is God's power, this is God's awesomeness, and this is the source of our great comfort.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.