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

Shabbat Balak: Truth Also Comes From Darkness

This week’s parashat hashavua finds us in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar, “in the wilderness”, is its Hebrew name) in chapter 23. We are offered a curious perspective in this parashah. There are a few places in the Torah in which a non-Israelites teaches the Israelites, but this is the only place in which an enemy of Israel offers a truth about Israel both to Israel and to its detractors.

The truth-teller is Balaam, a prophet-for-hire (not all prophets are Israelites). The enemy is Balak, King of Moab. He imports Balaam to his kingdom and brings him to the front lines of his territory to curse Israel for him. Keep in mind that an curse in that day was believed to be like a well-placed land mine today, protecting your land from all incursion.

But Balaam, having prepared himself to receive the word of G-d and to exclaim it from a high hill overlooking the Israelite camp, opens his mouth and not a curse but a blessing comes out.

How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom ה has not execrated? (Numbers 23.8)

Balaam tells the truth to the powerful politician who has hired him; the King of Moab is exasperated but respects, in the final analysis, that Balaam, as a prophet, “can only say what G-d puts in [my] mouth”. (Num. 23.12)

He had everything to gain by lying, but Balaam was professionally obligated to speak the truth as he saw it. Balak is going to have to figure out another way to protect his kingdom from the enemy he perceives on his borders.

We have no indication that Balak thought twice about it, that perhaps Balaam’s words might lead to the insight that Israel was not necessarily an enemy. One the blood is up and running, it is very hard for a human being to hear that our perception of an enemy is wrong. Yet it might very well be wrong.

Our tradition warns us to always hold the other in the כף זכות – khaf zekhut, meaning to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (Pirke Avot 1.6). This literally means that we are to assume that there is merit, or at least understandable motive, in all those others we encounter, in person or through the hearsay of gossip or media. It is very difficult to do that when we already know who our enemies are.  But after all, so did Balak; he knew that we were his enemy. Even after Balaam told him three times in this parashah that Israel was a blessing to him, he kept looking for the curses.

On this Shabbat, don’t assume you know the enemies that threaten your life. Rather, look for the hidden blessings that might lurk even in the place where you expect only curses. As it is noted in the teachings of the Sages, it is only within darkness, after all, that we are able to see light. And in that light, held up by or upon someone you thought was an enemy, you might see something that will bless your life.