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Ki Tavo 5783     September 2, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

The Torah spends a lot of time talking about Justice. Just a couple of weeks ago we were commanded to always pursue justice. Justice does not happen by itself; we need to do the work to ensure that justice is fair for everyone. In the Book of Leviticus there are very specific rules for judges; they have to be fair to the rich and poor alike. Justice does not mean feeling sorry for one side or another, but to follow the law in all cases.

Judaism spends so much time on the law and on justice that for centuries Christians described Judaism as a religion of laws and Christianity as a religion of love. They really overstated their case. Judaism has a lot of love contained in it, love of God and love for other human beings. But Judaism also understands that we are social creatures and when human beings live together it is almost impossible to avoid all conflicts. Without a fair method of resolving conflict, without justice, not only will there be no love for each other but there will not be any peace either.

Bex Stern-Rosenblatt, a teacher at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem noted that for Judaism, justice is more than a way for Jews to get along. How we get along is a symbol of how the world will get along. She wrote this week in her D’var Torah, “Our parashah opens with us giving the first fruits to God and declaring our allegiance to God. In return, God sets us above all other nations “as praise and as name and as glory.” Near the end of our parashah, we find a similar three-word list of what we will become if we don’t observe God’s commandments. In the midst of a long list of terrible curses, we read that we will become “as horror, as a proverb, and as a byword” among all the peoples amongst whom we are exiled. The first set is clearly good and the second set is clearly bad. But what exactly any of the words mean and why they are juxtaposed with each other is unclear.” 

Both of these descriptions depend on God’s original blessing to Abraham. In Lech Lecha, Abraham is to leave his thrice-described homeland so that God can bless him, make his name great, and he can be a blessing. The passage continues, explaining that Abraham will be a blessing because God will bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse Abraham. In our parashah, full of blessings and curses, our fate also determines the fate of the world. When all is well, we reflect God back into the world, elevating the nations above which we have been placed. When we choose not to reflect God’s presence back into the world, our very existence becomes a curse to other nations, our downfall presages theirs. 

I understand that this is a rather uncomfortable place for Jews to be in relationship to the other peoples of the world. Why should our fate determine what happens to everyone else? We are certainly not a perfect people, and this gives the other nations the opening to blame Jews when things go wrong in the world. God knows we get blamed for all kinds of problems, some real and some made up problems. Why should we consider ourselves above other nations? Why should our conduct be the example for the rest of the world? Why can’t we be a people just like any other people?

That answer, Bex Stern-Rosenblatt rightly traces back all the way to our ancestor Abraham. From the very beginning of his calling, Abraham would be a blessing to all who blessed him and a curse to all who cursed him. Remember that silly proverb from 4th grade, “I’m rubber and you are glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you?” We get the feeling that this is the thinking behind God’s blessing of Abraham. The more that people would bless Abraham, the more blessings they would receive from God. But if they attacked or cursed Abraham, then those curses would fall back upon those who uttered the curse. Remember the story of Balak and Balaam? Balaam tried to curse Israel, but his curses turned into blessings.

I also believe that this role for Israel, as the source of blessings or curses in the world, goes back far beyond the story of our founding mothers and fathers. God was not happy with creation almost from the start. Human beings were violent and cruel. God decided to destroy all the earth in flood and save one family, the family of Noah, and start the whole of creation over again. When Noah and his sons left the Ark, the world was pristine again and God was ready to try again to create a world with and for human beings.

But the second try was no better than the first. Right after the story of Noah, just a few generations later, we get the story of the Tower of Babel, the story about human hubris; that they would attack God and take over as rulers of the world. Their plan was again violent and cruel, and God realized that destroying human beings in the flood had not changed anything. God had promised Noah, using the rainbow as God’s pledge, that God would never again destroy all of humanity. So, what was God to do? God, of course, is beyond space and time, and the one thing that God has a lot of is time. God found another righteous man, one even more righteous than Noah, a man named Abraham, and promised him that his children would be a great nation. God set in motion the trip of Jacob into Egypt, the curse of slavery, the miracles of the redemption, and the wonder that was the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai so that humanity would know exactly what God wanted from them and they would know immediately when they had departed from that path.

Thus, according to the Torah, the entire purpose of choosing Abraham, giving us the Torah, and setting us up in our own land, was to show all the other nations that it is possible to live together in peace and love, and that the key to that heaven on earth was built on justice. What happens to our people is an indicator of which way the world is going. We are the legendary canary in the coal mine. Whatever happens to us is what will happen to the other nations of the world. That is a heavy burden to bear and a difficult assignment to complete. But the entire world depends on how good we are doing.

It would be easy here to talk about how the State of Israel is more than just another country in the world. It would be easy to talk about our role as the “light unto the nations” and about how Israel is doing a really bad job today; the news from Israel is not showing any other country the right and proper path. That approach would be too easy and too childish. I think that there is something deeper that is going on.

Israelis are no better or worse than any other human being. God did not choose Abraham because he had better DNA than other human beings. Abraham did not receive promises from God because he was some kind of a superman in the world. Abraham was chosen because he was kind and generous. We were given the Torah because we were to be kind and generous having experienced slavery and having an understanding of the way we should be treating our fellow human beings. Kindness and generosity, justice and peace, compassion and understanding, are the foundations upon which holiness is to be found.

When we build on this foundation, we radiate holiness to the rest of the world. Inspiring others not only to be like us, but to spread that holiness to every corner of the globe. But, as our parsha reminds us, if we destroy this foundation of Torah, then we become a cursed people, and according to our parsha, the curses are extraordinarily severe, and those curses will also radiate into the world inspiring others to follow our example. If we can be holy then anyone can be holy, but if we can’t do it, nobody will ever be able fulfill God’s expectations for humanity. God will not have to destroy us a second time; we will destroy ourselves. The evidence for this is all around us. The only question is if we can turn it all around. Can we become a holy people and set a new standard for humanity? That answer is not found in the Torah. The Torah is just the guide to how to live a holy life. The answer to bringing holiness into the world is found in our own hearts. Can we bring ourselves, one person at a time, to spread a pandemic of Good into the world?

It all starts with Justice. Justice brings in its wake, peace. Peace brings about compassion. Compassion spreads and brings kindness along with it. Kindness gives us understanding and understanding makes us generous. This is the meaning of Torah. We have a choice, to spread blessings or curses. It actually is not much of a choice. We either bring Torah into the world or we can watch the world spin back into chaos. It is a pretty easy decision to make.

Our parsha is about blessings and curses. It is asking us where we want to live our lives. We can choose to be better, to be kinder, to be a light that can lead others to a better world. But it is not a part time job. It must become the essence of our life. If we can choose blessings, then we can choose to build a better world for everyone.

May God give us the courage, the strength, and the determination to teach Torah to the world through our actions and through our commitment to Justice, as we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784