Ki Tavo: Walking The Way

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

This week we’re reading Ki Tavo, which has the them of arriving into
the Land, enjoying its agricultural blessings, and the consequences of
disloyalty- there are blessings for the people if they are loyal to
covenant and curses if they aren’t. In the middle of the blessings
which are promised, there is a verse which seems to be conditional,
but which is interpreted as containing a positive mitzvah [commandment]:

“The Lord will establish you as His holy people, as His swore to you,
if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His
ways.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 28:9)

In its historical context, this fits with the idea (problematic as it
may be) that if the Israelites “do good” in the Land, they are
blessed, and if not. . . oy. The ancient sages, however, read the last
clause of this verse as a general commandment to “walk in God’s ways.”

Well then, if God doesn’t actually “walk” anywhere, what does “walking
in God’s ways” mean?

The Sefer HaHinnuch, which we’ve been quoting a lot recently, says
about this commandment (#611 out of 613 !) that it’s about acting in
right and compassionate ways, like we believe that the Holy One does-
that is, “walking in God’s ways” is emulating qualities of goodness.
Not only that, but Sefer HaHinnuch goes on to say that “walking in
God’s ways” is about developing a moderate and thoughtful character
which avoids extremes and is trained towards the good and right.

What’s interesting about this commandment is that it’s not about doing
any one particular action (like saying the Shma, or waving a lulav),
but about a general spiritual and moral orientation- the mitzvah is to
develop ourselves into becoming people who habitually act in noble
ways. It’s a profoundly inward, personal mitzvah, concerned with how
we take stock of our own spiritual and moral development and guide
ourselves over a lifetime towards greater compassion and connection.

One of my pet peeves is the idea that an individual’s personal
conscience is somehow better or on a higher level than religious
ethics- as if religious people were robots with pre-programmed answers
to complex questions who don’t think for themselves. I find this
perspective absurd because if religion is doing its job (not a given,
by any means), personal conscience is challenged far beyond the limits
of most secular, utilitarian frameworks. If we are thinking about
“walking in God’s ways,” then we have to ask ourselves: am I being
compassionate, generous, forgiving, understanding, helpful, fair, and
just in the ways that I believe are most holy? (Good questions for
Elul before the Days of Awe. . . .)

Seen this way, religion isn’t at all about “having all the answers” –
it’s about struggling with harder questions. “Walking in God’s ways”
requires a “cheshbon hanefesh,” or “accounting of the soul,” in order
to fearlessly assess how we may better orient ourselves towards the
actions which bring about a world of peace, kindness, and justice.
That’s the goal- walking in God’s ways is the path.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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