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To Delight in Life

  • To Delight in Life

    Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
D'var Torah By: 

This week's Torah portion presents a seemingly endless litany of blessings and curses. These blessings and curses seem to follow a simple equation: follow God's commands and you will receive blessing; ignore or transgress them and you will receive curses. However, a more nuanced message is also embedded in the words of the parashah. Curses arise "because you would not serve the Eternal your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything . . ." (Deuteronomy 28:47).

Everything is here not only in small quantities, but also in abundance. Do we see and appreciate the abundance? Does it evoke in us a sense of joy, a desire to do what we can to perpetuate it or, in the language of our forebears, to serve the Source of it? The biblical writers were clear that the world is a mixture of good and bad, blessing and curse. In fact, for most of us, consistent with the layout of this week's parashah, it seems curses, or potential curses, far outnumber blessings. Yet, the text challenges us to see the links between our attitudes and behaviors, and repercussions for ourselves and others.

As some of you know, the word for "blessing" (b'rachah) and the word for "knee" (berech) share the same Hebrew root ( bet-reish-chaf). When we are aware of the blessings of this world, we are humbled-metaphorically, brought to our knees. And in humility, we offer our thanks and praise.

A few summers ago, my partner and I sang our way through Glacier National Park in Montana. Surrounded by mountain peaks, a stream running alongside, wild flowers in bloom, birds winging overhead, animals large and small, we found that "Wow! Did you see that!" didn't suffice. At times, silence seemed insufficient as well. And so, overflowing with awe and gratitude, we sang. Not the songs we heard on the radio-no! We sang words from Kabbalat Shabbat that focus on the wonders of creation. They seemed to capture our overwhelming feelings: "How great are your works, God, how profound your design," Mah gadlu maasecha, Adonai, m'od amku machsh'votecha (Psalm 92:6). "Let us sing a song of Hallelujah, a song praising God," Hava nashirah shir hal'luyah (Kabbalat Shabbat).

We were, in a word, humbled. On bended knee we recognized the extraordinary nature of what we were seeing and reached new understandings of how we often walk blindly through the world, taking for granted the astounding universe in which we live. Daily there are sunsets, there are growing things. There are people and sights and sounds and smells in endless variety to greet us. There are hands and eyes that meet and touch us. Before each of these, we are humbled. By each of these, we are blessed. When we interact with each, our behavior can reflect the attitude of respect and reverence they can evoke, if we allow them to.

A number of years ago, as I was preparing for one of my classes on life-cycle counseling, I decided to study more closely the meaning of the commandments related to honoring one's parents. My investigation, which focused on Hebrew words, revealed that "honor," kibeid, is connected with the root ( chaf-bet-dalet) for kabeid, meaning "heavy" or "weighty," and that "curse," k'lalah, is connected with the root (kuf-lamed-lamed) for kal, meaning "light." We honor when we recognize and respect the weightiness of someone or something. We curse when we ignore another's weightiness or importance, when we make light of something that deserves respect, when we believe something to be easy or simple when it is difficult or complex.

To miss the beauty, disregard kindnesses offered, disparage genuine efforts made by another, destroy the earth and its abundance, see a rock formation and overlook its history and intricacies, see only someone's anger and not his or her hurt, or make light of another person's perceptions and values-all this is to curse.

When I was working at a nursing home, Ruth, a resident, said to me, "Until ten or fifteen years ago, I would wish people celebrating their birthdays, biz hundert un tzvantzik . . . they should live, like Moses, to 120. No more, no more. I've seen too many people wheeled down here by the staff for a birthday celebration for their ninetieth or ninety-fifth birthday. For what? They're a shell in a chair. They can't do what they used to. They can't see the writing on the cake. Some can't even taste the cake. One hundred and twenty-who needs the years? I no longer wish people long years, but good health. Living so long is just a curse!"

In contrast, Pauline and I met when she was ninety-eight. She was all bones. She was legally blind. She'd been bedridden for years. Yet, each week, she'd greet me with a smile and thank me for visiting. Over the years, she told me about her life. As a young girl, she survived a pogrom. She hid in the forests during the Holocaust and emigrated to the United States after the war. She marveled, daily, at the fact that she was alive. She spoke of her life's blessings: her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; her memories of fresh challah being removed from her mother's oven; the kindnesses, the courage, the hope that she had found to sustain her amid the group she survived with in the forests; the care with which her nurses attended to her needs. In her thin wavering voice, she said, "I never know who is going to come by or write or visit. I never know what I'll see or hear outside my window, or what memory will visit me. Each day, each day . . . there are blessings."

The challenge of this week's parashah is contained in a special psalm we recite as the High Holy Days approach. Their message can serve as a frame for us as we review our lives and contemplate our lives for the year to come.

Who is the person who delights in life?

One who loves each day and sees the good.

Keep your tongue from evil

and your lips from speaking deceitfully

Turn from evil and do good

seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34:13-15)

Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min. is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at HUC-JIR, New York. She is the spiritual leader of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.

This d'var Torah was distributed previously by the URJ. 

Separate but Not Equal: Blessings and Curses in Ki Tavo
Davar Acher By: 
Elliot Kukla

This week’s portion is hard to love. It contains a long list of the painful ways we will be cursed if we do not follow God’s commandments. If we disobey, we are told, we will be homeless and hungry; stricken with illness, fever and famine. Sandwiched amidst the curses, we get the sweet taste of a few blessings. If we obey, we learn, we will be blessed with many children and good food, security and protection. The blessings and the curses do not match in many ways. First of all, there are only fourteen verses of blessing and fifty-four verses of curses. The modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz noted that even the language of the blessings does not correspond directly to the language of the curses; there are always key differences in syntax and vocabulary (Studies in Devarim [Jerusalem, n.d.], p. 282ff).

When I visit people in the hospital they often want to believe that suffering and joy ought to come in equal measure—that for every tribulation there will be a triumph, for every cloud a silver lining. But sadly our lives do not work that way. Likewise, the blessings in our portion do not balance out or “fix” the curses. Instead, they lie side by side.

The poet Yehuda Amichai writes that Ecclesiastes was wrong: we don’t have a specific time for every experience under heaven in our short lives. Instead, he writes: “A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, to laugh and cry with the same eyes, with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, to make love in war and war in love . . . ” (“A Man in His Life,” in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. C. Bloch, S. Mitchell [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013] p. 158).

Most of our lives are all things at once—birth and death, love and hate, triumph and defeat, gain and loss—in unequal measure. This is what makes life so unpredictable and sometimes scary, but it is also what makes the tapestry of our lives so rich and complex; and it is what makes unexpected moments of blessing so precious and holy. Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

8/24/2013
Reference Materials: 

Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,508–1,537; Revised Edition, pp. 1,347–1,367;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,191–1,216