Ki Tavo

Parshat Ki Tavo

By Henry Morgen

Shabbat shalom. This morning I’m dedicating my d’rash to the memory of my father, Sidney Morgen. This is his first yartzeit, which I will observe this evening. Before I knew of the concept of tzim-tsum, which is the idea that God had to withdraw some of Himself to make space for the universe to exist, my dad taught me an interesting way to think about God. He said, “imagine God is always present and giving us hints about the universe we live in, but He’s always staying just barely out of reach. As we gain a new insight or develop a new understanding about our world, God smiles and backs off just slightly, so we need to reach out further to expand our knowledge of the universe.” I don’t recall how old I was when we started this conversation, but I know it was pre-bar mitzvah. I do recall that I wasn’t fully able to grasp the brilliance of this perspective at the time. I was a very practical minded guy, and I just couldn’t believe that there was a “god in charge” of the universe. And even if there was, I couldn’t see how that would involve any individual on a planet around a star in the Milky Way galaxy among all the many galaxies out there. You may be wondering this same thing. In fact, as a fairly scientifically minded adult, I’m even more certain that God is not paying attention to Henry Morgen per se. There are trillions of galaxies each having trillions of stars. The universe is over 13 billion earth years old, and earth is only about 5 billion years old. What does a spec of dust like me that lasts for less time than a blink of an eye mean in the context of the universe that Adonai, Elohiym Ha-olam, would even give note to for a trillionth of a blink of an eye? Great question. Let’s see what our parsha says. (You knew I’d get around to this at some point, right?)

Ki Tavo is known for two key things: It opens with some fairly famous words that we Jews share every Pesach at the Seder[1]. It concludes with a few blessings and a huge slew of curses. Before I link these together, let’s take a big step back to view this in the context of the Five Books of Moses and even the Tanah as a whole.

The name we use for God in parshat B’reishit is “Elohiym”. This is the Majestic God of the Universe. When God was busy creating the universe, the penultimate creation was the human being. (The Shabbat was the ultimate creation of space-time.) Do you recall the very first thing that God commands this male & female creature to do? Yes, “be fruitful and multiply” is the first half of the commandment that we all remember. It’s so easy to just half listen. The rest of the commandment was “fill the earth, rule over the it, and be stewards[2] for the fish, the birds, and everything else that lives on earth.” This covenant is pretty clear, yes? Our job is to take care of the world that God created. The entire rest of the Tanah shows that this creature, created in God’s image with free will, just doesn’t get it. When will we actually choose to do God’s assignment for us?

Given the etiquette and time constraints we have this morning I’m going to have to gloss over things pretty quickly, so here’s a quick reminder of what humans keep not getting:

  • Adam & Hava eat the fruit from the tree they’re told not to eat from. This gives them awareness that there are right and wrong decisions with real consequences. They’re banished from the garden as a result and have to toil to keep themselves fed and clothed. The new covenant is a good deal more difficult than the first one. God will no longer assure them that all their needs are being met; they are no longer infants. They have to explore their world and start thinking for themselves to survive.
  • Next their sons have a dispute that leads to one killing the other over perceived favoritism by God. Now humans become aware of mortality and the expectation of some sort of basic morality. Implied supplemental covenant: Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.
  • Mankind continues to do increasingly despicable things and not acknowledge God or his expectations, so God decides he’ll start over. Enter Noah. God guides Noah to take actions that save the animals and his family. At the end of this ordeal, He provides an enhanced covenant with some basic rules for civilization to live by.
  • Mankind continues to think they’re the big deal in this world and ignore God’s rules. They build a tower to heaven, so God scatters them across the planet. Remember that “fill the earth” part of the first commandment?
  • It appears that humans still aren’t grasping the basics, but one guy, Avram, seems to acknowledge that there’s one God in the universe, and he seems to behave better than his peers, too. Even his behavior isn’t ideal, but at least we can see that he learns from his errors. He also expects the God of the universe to behave ethically. As a result God provides him with “protectsia” and a promise that his offspring will get special “yichus.”
  • Avraham’s grandson, Yaakov, doesn’t seem to be such an upstanding fellow, yet compared to his brother Esav and others of his generation, he seems to be the best one to carry on his grandfather’s legacy. Unfortunately, his unvarnished favoritism for one wife over the others and one son over the others leads to more trouble for the clan and ultimately mankind. Never the less, God re-ups the covenant he had made with Ya’akov’s grandfather and father.
  • Israel’s sons are a truly motley group. Again, some of them seem to be quicker studies in ethical behavior than others. Some never get it. From a biblical perspective, there is yet another “punishment” for collective bad behavior that lasts many generations this time.
  • God recalls he’s not going to destroy the world again and that he committed to Avraham that his descendants would become a “great nation”, so he has to free the Israelites from that captivity he ordained. Once again, there is a human, Moses, who can act on God’s behalf in our world. Moses understands that he is merely the spokesman for God and is able to stand up to the Pharaoh who thinks he is god.
  • After bringing the fledgling nation out of captivity, God, through Moses again, spends years delivering guidelines and then teaching the people how to behave in a context that they would understand. “Be an ethical example to the other nations of the world” is just too abstract. Ultimately lots of layers of tangible rules are delivered, so they can experience what doing the right thing would be like in ways large and small. Still the people don’t seem to get it. They can’t believe that the wilderness will sustain them even if God is showing them the way. They want to be slaves again, or worship like all the other nations, or just challenge the guidance they’ve been given.

This brings us up to today’s slice of the story. In summary, God says in effect:

You’re going to be living in a land that I’m giving to you. After you’ve removed the squatters and settled it, remember how you received this good fortune. Bring a gift of your produce, and thank Me for recognizing the merit of your ancestors so strongly that your very sustenance is now beholden to that commitment. Furthermore if you walk in My ways, all will go well for you, but if you keep rebelling, we’ll have to go through another round of purging.

For those of you that have read ahead, we find our clan, and much of the people that inhabit this planet, continuing to “not get it.” It is clear that God seems to have a lot of patience for this human being he created, given how generation after generation it continues to behave “off the rails” so much of the time. But, let’s get back to the basic point here: People are supposed to spread out across the earth and be good stewards of it. According to our Torah, God thought it might be helpful for the rest of humanity if he designated a small band of people to be an example to the rest of them about what was expected. Since we’re claiming to be part of that small collective, how can we do this in the world we’re living in now? Remember, the universe, as we understand it is about 13.5 billion years old. The earth is about 5 billion years old. Humans, in the somewhat recognizable form we are today, are less than 50,000 years old. What have we done in this less than a blink of an eye with respect to the timeline of the universe?

In exponential fashion humans have mastered foraging, hunting, agriculture, construction, artwork, oral communication, written communication. We have developed incredible tools and unimaginable technology. We are truly unique and amazing beings among all the creatures on the earth. Yet, we have also behaved rather poorly on the fulfillment of the most fundamental covenant we were charged to uphold by our Source of Life: “… be good stewards of this planet.” The evidence is undeniable at this point that our planet’s mean temperature is ramping up now year by year, and the start of the ramp seems to be around the same time we started burning coal and dumping lots of carbon oxides and hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

I’m not quite headed in the classical tree-hugger direction that some of you may be expecting here. Instead I’d like to make the analogy that we need to grow up! What I’ve learned from my parents and other parents is that kids need to take more and more responsibility for their actions. For example, when they’re toddlers you pick up the toys they toss on the ground. Later they need to be responsible for cleaning up the toys they leave lying around. Then they gradually learn to be responsible for taking care of the house by clearing the dishes, making the bed, vacuuming, gardening, etc. They can’t just mess things up and leave it to someone else to own the fix. They also gradually learn to behave courteously by adding “please” to requests, and “thank you” when something is given to them. They learn how to have civil discussions and ideally how not to be a bully and how to confront bullying.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the same expectation of many of our corporations. We must expect them to clean up their mess as they go, or better yet not make messes in the first place. It has to be part of doing business. We need to be sure that resources are used wisely and whenever possible to minimize the impact to our environment. We need to ensure that human safety and dignity are at the core of any company’s operating principles. We must find a way to stop condoning de facto indentured servitude and allowing slavery to continue in the world. And we need to behave as individuals in ways that are consistent with these behaviors, too. We need to minimize our use of disposable containers and products. We need to recycle to the extent possible. We must use our natural resources such as water, and our energy sources such as gasoline and electricity, as efficiently as possible. We should make sure that we treat each other as the human beings that we are, created in the image of Elohiym. In fact, we need to treat ourselves this way being sure to maintain our bodies as healthfully as possible. We must expand our minds and share our knowledge to advance the collective knowledge of the world. And we need to support organizations that will help accomplish these goals in the world. I am confident that we humans can figure out how to deal with this mess we’ve created if we start to pull together and stop resisting owning the problem. In human history the strongest and fasted advances have come from collaboration not from fighting.

God’s clue to us humans from the beginning has been “take care of this planet.” From the perspective I learned from my dad, God is trying to get us to grow up and be responsible like any parent would. He continues to effectively step back and provide us with the free will to do more with the knowledge we gain every generation. If we want to have length of days as a species, say another few hundred thousand years, we should take a tip from God and act more responsibly. Oh, by the way, this parsha arrives in the middle of Elul. As we contemplate the year gone by and the year ahead, it could be useful to include some of this thinking in the process. When we address “Avinu Malkeinu” we’re speaking to our ultimate Parent, and Source of Life, the Majestic Eternal Ruler of the universe. May we all do what we can to be the kind of people that are a light to the world, and in so doing, help bring about the redemption of the world that Adonai has asked us to help make possible. Shabbat shalom.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:5-10 “…An Arammian nomad was my father, and he went down to Mizrayim, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Mizrim dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Mizrayim with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. And He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which You, O Lord, have given me. …”

[2] Technically the Hebrew word translates more accurately as “rule over”; however, the Ruler of the universe is God, and we’re being asked to serve in His stead. Therefore, this is more accurately a role of stewardship.

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