Ki Tavo: The Blessing is in the Fixing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Shalom on a sunny September day!

We’re approaching the Days of Awe, and not coincidentally, the readings towards
the end
of the book of Devarim/ Deuteronomy urge the Israelites towards reflection and
recommitment. In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, Moshe tells the people that they
must, in
the future, express their thanks to God for bringing them into the land and
teaches them
rituals and a liturgy for doing so.

Building a nation in its Land also requires a social welfare system, and so
special tithes are
set aside for the poor and for the Levites, the Temple assistants, who have no
land of their
own. The latter part of the parsha is called the “tochecha,” or “rebuke,” in
which blessings
are described for those loyal to Torah and great and terrible curses are
promised for those
who defy moral and religious law. Moshe is about to die, so he wants the people
to carry
on the work of Torah after his death- the blessings and curses are a way of
reminding the
nation of what’s at stake.

One of the most famous verses of blessing, often written upon synagogue gates
and
doors, is from chapter 28:

“Blessed will you be when you come, and blessed will you be when you depart.”
(Devarim/
Deuteronomy 28:6)

In context, it is part of the overall “package” of blessings promised to the
nation if they are
loyal and good; blessing will follow us wherever we go, from “from A to Z”, as
it were. So
far, so good. However, our teacher Rashi, basing himself on an earlier
interpretation,
offers an understanding of “when you come and when you depart” which is much
more
personal and urgent:

Rashi’s comment on this verse:

“For your departure from the world will be without sin, like your arrival into
the world.”

Rashi takes a blessing for the nation and “individualizes” it, but in doing so,
makes two
profound theological statements. First: notice the contrast with the idea of
“original sin.” I
think a normative Jewish view holds that people are not born good nor bad, but
have the
capacity for better or worse (sometimes much worse, even evil) choices.
Sometimes, of
course, that capacity is diminished by trauma, affliction, mental illness, or
other mitigating
factors, but in general, we’re not “sinners,” we’re “choosers.”

This is a crucial point to understand in advance of the Days of Awe. The liturgy
on Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur urges us to account for our deeds- and of course, there
could
be no “accountability” (in both senses of the term) if we were not free to
choose and thus
responsible for our moral behavior.

Secondly, notice Rashi’s presumption that we can, in fact, exit this world as
free of sin as
when we were born. We are not doomed to carry our mistakes as a terrible burden,
but
can, in fact, repair our relationships and restore the equilibrium of our souls.
Again, this is
a crucial point for the upcoming season: t’shuvah, or “repentance,” is about our
ability to
fix things, not about feeling shamed and guilty.

We can “exit” this world in blessing if we continually examine our deeds and
repair that in
our lives which is not worthy of our status as Children of the Living God. We do
this by
humbling ourselves, apologizing sincerely to those we have wronged, and seeking
to
understand and change those patterns of behavior which lead us astray in our
interactions
with others.

That’s a basic task of this holy season; it’s not complicated, but it’s not
easy, either. The
promise is this: by doing our t’shuvah, our repair work, we can escape the curse
of guilt
and achieve the blessing of renewed relationship, with ourselves and with
others.

PS- As usual, you can find the text of the parsha and additional commentaries
here:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/kitavo.html

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