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Parshat Ki Tavo

08/31/2023 01:08:43 PM


Rabbi Hearshen

About a month back, 8/3/2023 (Parshat Ekev) to be exact, I wrote about the concept of Jewish choseness and what it means historically and today. I invoked the words of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof:” “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?” The entire book of Deuteronomy acts as a book on philosophy, theology and the closing words that Moses offers to the people of Israel. In this week’s Parasha, Ki Tavo, we go further down this road and discover a great deal of blessing and cursing.
Moses tells us we’ll enter the Land of Israel and we’ll need to set up monuments to our relationship with God and to have a ceremony through which we’ll announce the blessings and curses we’ll earn depending on our behavior. In physics, we talk about Newton’s third law “for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction”. We want to know when something happens it results in something in the world. Think about baking. We spend our time following a recipe very closely and then we expect to open the oven and pull out food that looks, feels, smells and tastes the way we planned. But there are many times things don’t turn out as planned and we question how it could be. We followed the instructions. How could we not get what we were told we would get?
In the Talmud (Brachot 7a), we learn
צדיק ורע לו, רשע וטוב לו/a righteous person and bad happens to them, a wicked person and good happens to them. It’s a deep problem to think good people suffer and bad prosper. According to the Talmud (ibid), the suffering righteous person is not a completely righteous one and the prospering bad person is not entirely bad. But that does little to help us to feel any better about the situation. We call this line of philosophy/theology theodicy, which is the study of evil in the world that’s created by a good and loving Creator. The reality is we need to contend with a world where bad things happen to “good people” and where “bad people” prosper. We need to do so to live lives that don’t feel so broken. To begin this process, we would be well served to accept that no person is truly all good or all bad. We would be well served to recognize we need to judge others more favorably and ourselves more honestly (sometimes the reverse can also be true).
What does it mean to be blessed and what does it mean to be cursed? Is it possible to assert we apply a label and sometimes we could be wrong? Is it plausible we misunderstand? Yes, it is, but perhaps it’s not just simply a misunderstanding and in fact we feel correct about our disposition. Perhaps we need to recognize that the pain and joy we and others feel is legitimate and real and we do not “deserve” one or the other. Perhaps the world isn’t some planned out system where our actions live by a metaphysical version of Newton’s third law. Perhaps the pain we feel isn’t a punishment for something, but the reality of a world that exists with order and chaos all at the same time.
With all of that said, it’s important not to simply accept that we live without control over our lives. We need to recognize that the quality of our lives is something we heavily impact. We control how we respond to the adversity and the joy we encounter. We control a part of this world, and to throw up our hands in exasperation is to abdicate our own responsibility, and that’s in large part what the blessings and curses of this week’s Parasha is talking about: our responsibility. We have to own our emotions and our actions to be able to live better lives. We are inching closer and closer to the High Holidays and need to seize this opportunity to look within to find more blessings and fewer curses in our lives so we can start this next year on a better and more meaningful path.

Mon, October 2 2023 17 Tishrei 5784