Shabbat Ki Tavo: The Butterfly’s Wing

How has the human race come to this, that human beings cause the suffering and death of other human beings, even unto a three year old, photos of whose dead body are now all over the Internet? 

To take our parashat hashavua at face value, the evil way that human beings treat each other is explained very succinctly, in two harsh verses:

Because you did not serve HaShem your G-d with joy and with gladness, realizing the abundance of your blessings, therefore you will serve your enemy whom HaShem shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things; and one more powerful than you will coerce you until you are destroyed.  (Devarim 28.47-48)

Our modern problem in understanding this verse is in perceiving it to be applicable to individuals. We reject the concept of individual reward and punishment, because we have seen it demonstrated that evil does flourish in the world, and sometimes devours the good.

Our upcoming Days of Awe offer us deep wisdom of a different, more ancient understanding: we are not just individuals, even though we are, individually, precious and irreplaceable reflections of G-d. We are also part of a family, a tribe, a kinship group, and a nation, among other circles of community.  These two verses speak to that other aspect of our existence – our communal acts. We may not know how to understand this, we may feel helpless to influence the groups of which we are a part, but that does not mean that we are unaffected.  

We are often charmed by the idea of a small act leading, through a chain of events, to a large act – smile, we are told, because that ripple effect can, somewhere down a line you cannot see, influence someone’s life profoundly. Similarly, the butterfly’s wings can, under the right conditions, begin a movement of air that can end in a hurricane, so we are told, and we are fascinated by the idea.

Is there a link between my own personal selfish behavior and the death of an innocent child in Syria? How can there not be?

To refuse to serve G-d in joy, in realization of one’s blessings, is the Torah’s way of expressing the idea that I might develop a certain spoiled indifference to the great blessings I have, and blow off the requirement to serve G-d, that is to say, to carefully discharge my responsibility to uphold human decency and ethics, instead acting lazily or arrogantly as if I deserved my great luck. In so doing I create a small curdled airwave of unhappiness. Who knows where it goes? Who knows what power enough diffidence on the part of one community might have on others – what curses it might bring, finally, back upon that community? That enemy we will end up serving is us at our worst, and our society at its worst, G-d forbid; it leads to dead children who had no one to help them.

Remember Tevye’s line – we are to rejoice even when there’s not so much to be happy about. We are commanded, as Jews, to act generously even when we feel impoverished – that is, even the poorest of us is required to give tzedakah. The secret wisdom here is that to reach out even a little to others gives strength back to us; it reminds us of the power we do have to heal, to work for the good – to help the helpless.

On this Shabbat, count your blessings. Let the joy you feel in what you do have keep you intent on serving G-d by working for a better world. There are enough curses in the world, and there is great evil. To serve G-d is to continue to act as if it is not too late for this world of ours to move away from the curses we’ve caused, and toward the redemption we can, together, create.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for a good year

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