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

parashat Re’eh: See Your Power to Bless

See, I set before you blessing and curse. (Dev. 11.26)

For Maimonides, the opening verse of this week’s parashah means that the choice of blessing and curse are before us. This is the proof of our free will. This question, of the meaning of human existence in a world which is immersed in G-d, has been seen by many as a paradox:

If G-d is all powerful, then we are puppets, without the ability to act unless G-d wills it.

If we have free will, then G-d’s will is not, by definition, all-powerful.

This sort of logical dilemma has driven people crazy for millennia. It may feel distant from you, but if you look at it another way, it’s actually a very familiar problem: are my actions my choice, or am I being influenced by something other than myself? The answer, we know, is yes and yes – both are true.

The implications of free choice challenge the old misunderstanding about the doctrine of reward and punishment by suggesting that sin is punished, and virtue rewarded, in a straightforward way. We are free to choose, and we deserve, therefore, to experience the consequences of our choices.

But we know that suffering in our world is not straightforward, nor easy to understand. And it is nonsense to insist that all those who suffer deserve it.

We also know that human acts do bring about both blessing and curse.

This is not only a modern philosophical problem. Already in the era of the Talmud, the verse was interpreted to mean “See, I set before you the blessing and its transmutation.” (Yonatan ben Uzziel)

The translation understands that human beings not only have the power of action for or against the good of the world, but we have another power: that of taking a blessing and transmuting it into a curse, and therefore, of taking a curse and turning it into a blessing.

The mitzvah of seeing, then, is not only to understand the impact of our power of choice, but also the power we have to destroy a blessing by our freely chosen acts. The only consolation is that we also have the power to destroy a curse, by wrestling a blessing from it.

Thus, the first word of the verse is the most important of all: see!

See your own power to challenge the strength of a curse. See your power to create blessing from despair – even your own. When you are next confronted by something that strikes you as wrong, as unethical, as evil, don’t look away; look more deeply, look for the key that will show you how to transform that curse into a blessing. If you do that, you are adding a tiny bit to the overall blessedness of the world. If you don’t, then you haven’t yet seen how important each of your choices really is.

Only when a curse is seen can it be transmuted into a blessing. See your power to choose; see the blessing your hands can bring into being.