Thursday, September 11, 2014

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ki Tavo

Mixed Blessings?

In the middle of the extended section on the calamities and curses that will befall the Israelites if they fail to observe the mitzvot, we find a curious set of verses:

Because you served not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore shall you serve your enemies which the Lord shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things (Devarim, 28:47-48).

Not only have we sinned, the Torah seems to be telling us, but we sinned when we had every opportunity to serve God to the best of our ability, when we were prosperous and happy. And so, as a measure-for-measure punishment, we will be stripped of this goodness and left in a state of dependency and want.

Read this way, the message seems to be that it is easier to serve God when all is going well. But is this actually the case? Often, it is exactly the opposite that is true. When we are dependent and in need, we call out to God. It is when we are successful that we tend to forget God. Sometimes this is because we are drawn after hedonistic, or at least materialistic, pleasures. At other times it is because we grow arrogant, thinking, as the verse states, that "it is my power and the might of my hand that has gotten me this wealth" (8:17).

Most of the time, however, it is not so much that we rebel against or reject God but something subtler and, for that reason, all the more pervasive. It is a variation of Pierre-Simon Laplace's reported response to Napoleon's question ("But where is God in all this?") after he had discussed the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter: "Sire, I had no need for that hypothesis." When we have it good, we have "no need for that hypothesis." God stops being a present force in our life, stops serving an obvious purpose. It is less about rejecting than it is about ignoring and forgetting.

This is of course a problem that we face today. Overall, we have it quite good. What makes us remember God?

One possibility is the drastic answer presented in our parasha: hardship and privation. If the people are taken as slaves, made naked and starving, they will by necessity turn to God to save them. Even less severe circumstances could lead to a profound sense of dependency. Consider the verse at the end of the section of curses: "And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and shall have none assurance of your life" (28:66).

The simple sense of this verse is that every moment you will fear the next tragedy that may befall you. But the Talmud (Menachot, 103b), quoted by Rashi, offers another explanation: "you will not have any stored food, but will have to rely on the baker daily for your bread."

When Boris Yeltsin visited the United States in 1989, seeing an American supermarket impressed him more than anything else. As is known, in the U.S.S.R., people had to wait in long lines in hopes of receive basic food items, and here all was available for the taking. The AP reports that on returning to Russia he said to his followers, "Their supermarkets have 30,000 food items... You can't imagine it. It makes the people feel secure."

It is because of this basic sense of security we all take for granted that it is so hard to see God in our lives. As someone once said regarding why tefillah is such a challenge in Modern Orthodox schools: "We are asking the children to pray in a language they don't understand, to a God they might not believe in, for things they don't need." If we are free from basic need, what will make us turn to God?

Undoubtedly, were we reduced to privation and a precarious existence, were our lives "hanging in doubt before us," we would turn to God on a regular basis. But this is certainly not something we would wish on anyone. There is a reason that this is a curse in the Torah. It is an answer of last resort.

So what then is the ideal solution? An answer can be found in the opening of our parasha. There the people are told that they are to bring their first fruits to the Temple and express their gratitude for what God has given them. But it is not just a simple "thank you." For it is easy to say thank you without any real meaning. The Torah, rather, is teaching us how to say thank you.

Before any thank you is uttered, the person first recites what has brought him to this place - the descent to Egypt, the slavery, the calling out to God, God's redeeming of the people, and God's giving the land of Israel to the people. We must pause to remember how and when things were different. If our national history is vivid in our memory, if the hardships faced, wars fought, and challenges overcome are in the forefront of our consciousness, then we will know what God has given us and what God is continuing to give to us.

What is the antidote for the concern that we will not serve God bi'simcha u'bi'tuv levav meirov kol - in joy and gladness of the heart, from an abundance of good? To learn how to appreciate that what we have is from God. Then, the Torah tells us, using almost identical phrasing, vi'samachta bi'kol hatov - you will rejoice in all the good. And it will be a rejoicing that serves God, because you will know that it is kol ha'tov asher natan likha Hashem E-lokhekha, "the good that you have been given by God" (26:11).

Of course, this is easier said than done. The point of giving thanks to God is to cultivate this sense of gratitude and blessedness, but it doesn't happen automatically. We have many blessings in our liturgy which can help us do this - the blessings before food, the blessings after food, blessings on good tidings, on wonders of nature - but if these are said mechanically they will fail to shape our religious sensibilities. The lesson from the recital of the first fruits is that we must not pay attention to what we are saying (already a major accomplishment) but also take the time to truly consider how things were different in the past and how things could be different, were we not so fortunate, in the present.

In a way, this is a variation of the line, "Remember that there are children starving in Africa." As a means of getting a child to eat her food, this statement is probably useless today. But a thoughtful consideration of the privation of others can help a person cultivate a sense of appreciation for the opportunities and advantages that she has been given and a sense of gratitude to God for the blessings that she has received.

This suggests another, related, approach. For in full, the final verse of the first fruits reads thusly: "And you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and your household - you, and the Levi, and the stranger in your midst." The command to share our bounty with those less fortunate is not just an outgrowth of our recognition that our prosperity comes from God. It can actually be the source of this recognition.

If we go out and contribute to the betterment of those who are less fortunate than ourselves, if we approach them not just with sympathy but with empathy, if we put ourselves in their place and understand their realities, then it will not be possible for us to take what we have for granted. If we spend more time in homeless shelters, in soup kitchens, and in depressed neighborhoods, we will more deeply appreciate what it is that God has given us.

This does not mean that we are to use these individuals instrumentally so that we can feel more blessed. Far from it! Rather, by truly caring and connecting we will naturally appreciate our blessings, and then, just as naturally, we will be led to share these blessings with them since we will know that, ultimately, all these blessings come from God. And then this virtuous cycle will repeat. The more we feel blessed, the more we will give. And the more we give, the more we will feel blessed.

As Rosh HaShannah approaches let us pray that next year will be one of only blessings and prosperity. And let us do what we need to do to be deserving of these blessings. Let us live our lives with the knowledge that what we have is a blessing from God, so that we may truly rejoice in all the good that God has given us - us and the Levi and the stranger in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom!