1. SHABBAT SHALOM
2. Blessings and Curses. This is the content of much of this week’s Parsha. There is a list of blessings if we follow God’s law, and a list of curses for committing sins in secret in the vain hope that we will never be caught. This is followed by a list of good things that will happen if we are faithful to God and a list of disasters if we ignore the teachings of the Torah.
3. There are a number of ways to look at these admonitions. There are a number of ways to deal with the problems that they engender. The first problem is that we know the passage is not true. Our experience tells us that sometimes those who are deserving of blessings don’t get the blessings that are promised. Sometimes those who are deserving of punishment don’t get the curses that are promised. In some ways we have to read this whole difficult passage and sigh, wishing that it were true, that the good would be rewarded and evil will be punished. And we pray that somewhere, in the world to come, this inequality will be made right.
4. In ancient times, when the first and second Temples were destroyed, the people turned to these admonitions and declared that it was not that their enemies had defeated them. The defeat was because God did not fight for them. God did not fight for them because they no longer were true to the teachings of Torah. It was not the strength of the enemy, but the guilt of the people that brought about tragedy and they could only hope that if they became more attached to the Mitzvot of the Torah, they would merit blessings and eventually, the restoration of the Temple and homeland. We repeat this message on holidays when we recite in our Musaf service, “Mip’nai Hatotaynu Galinu MeArtzenu, “because of our Sins we were exiled from our land.” For our ancestors in medieval Europe, and those who lived during the emancipation, these words reminded them that their actions do count in the halls of heaven. But we who live in the shadow of the Holocaust, we understand that there are no sins so terrible that such a tragedy should befall our people. That our sins could never be as bad as to warrant the death of six million innocent Jews, including one million children. There are some theologians who say we should change the words of the Musaf rather than repeat what amounts to blasphemy. There is no sin that could bring on such pain and there is no blessing that could ever comfort us for what we have lost.
5. Rabbi Abigail Trau, a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, calls our attention to the fact that God tells us in this Parsha, that if we will LISTEN to what God tells us, all will be well and if we refuse to LISTEN, then death and tragedy will follow. She remembered a rabbi who once taught her by explaining that, unlike our eyes and mouth, our ears are always open. We cannot close our ears to the sounds around us. So it is therefore up to us, in our inner lives, to decide HOW to listen.
6. According to Rabbi Trau, the condition of our emotional state is about what takes place “inside” us no matter the conditions and happenings of our physical lives “outside”. We can’t control what happens to us but we have control over our happiness. We can walk through life with our hearing attuned to the negative or we can devote our hearing to things that are Godly.
7. This is an important lesson to remember at this season of the year, when we begin to examine our souls in preparation for the High Holy Days. This is a time of Heshbone HaNefesh, the taking of a personal inventory of what has happened in the past year and what we need to do to get back to being right with our friends, our neighbors and with God. Over the course of the days and weeks ahead, we will review all the sins we have committed and will strike our chest in contrition for the wrongs we have done. The list of Al Het that we will recite over and over again on Yom Kippur, pierces our hearts as we realize we could have done better last year, and we failed. This season is a sobering reminder that we are far from perfect and far from walking the path laid out for us by God.
8. This review of the last year can be really depressing. Last year we promised ourselves and God that we would do better, and now, at the end of the year, we find that we are as far away from our goal today as we were last Yom Kippur, if not farther away. All the efforts to repent our sins and live a better life just didn’t work out the way we wanted them to, and we feel guilty, and deserving of at least some of the curses that fill the greater part of our Parsha.
9. I have an exercise that I like to do with those who feel that there is no end to the mistakes and sins that they have performed over the course of the year. I hold up a large white sheet of paper with a small black dot in the middle and ask, “What do you see?” Almost everyone replies, “I see a black dot”. I tell them that the dot is insignificant, what this is, is a perfectly good piece of white paper. For most people, the one small dot makes the whole sheet of paper unusable. We need to concentrate sometimes, not on the flaws, but on the greater part of life that is untouched by sin.
10. I don’t want a show of hands, but think about this for a moment. How many of us can say that we broke even one of the Ten Commandments this year? Did we worship graven images? Did we not honor our parents? Did we commit murder or adultery? Did we lie, steal or covet? Maybe we could have honored Shabbat more, but did we at least come to shul, bless Shabbat candles or eat a Shabbat meal? But even if you don’t feel that you observed Shabbat enough to get credit for the Mitzvah, that still leaves you with a 90% success rate for the Ten Commandments. The greatest baseball players are only successful 33% of the time!
11. The prayer, Al Het, lists some forty-four sins that we need to repent on Yom Kippur. But if you read the list, how many can we really say we are personally guilty of transgressing. Five or ten? That still gives us a seventy five percent success rate for the past year. (Aren’t statistics wonderful?) While it is important for our growth to work on making the number of sins in our life as small as possible, we should at least acknowledge that our lives are not totally wicked. We have come a long way in life, and that path has not been wasted just because we are not yet perfect.
12. In fact, the only perfection in this imperfect world is God. No matter how perfect we wish to be, we will never find the ultimate perfection that we find in our Creator. God knows we are not perfect, God knows that while we mean well, we often fall short of the standards that God sets for us and that we set for ourselves. This is why God is so forgiving; the issue is not whether or not we are perfect, the issue is how hard we are trying to be better.
13. There is a famous story about a woman walking on the beach after a storm. She sees a man in the distance and she can’t quite make out what he is doing. As she gets closer, she sees that he is throwing something into the ocean. As she gets even closer, she sees that he is picking up the starfish that have washed ashore in the storm and is throwing them back into the sea. She approaches him and asks, “What are you doing?” He replies, “These starfish will die if they are out of the water too long so I am throwing them back into the sea.” The woman was astounded, “”But don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” The man then picked up another starfish and threw it back into the sea, “It makes a difference to that one!”
14. Every action in our lives makes a difference. To a friend, to a neighbor, to a stranger and to God. Every effort we make is important. Every time we fail, we get another chance to learn from our mistakes and try harder or try something different the next time around. As long as we try, we are blessed with opportunities to try again. When we stop trying and give up, only then do we have to face the curses and warnings that are so much a part of this week’s Parsha.
15. Remember also what Rabbi Trau taught, that what is important is not what is outside but how we feel on the inside. We can experience many difficulties in life. What is important is not what happens, but how we feel about them. We can focus on where we failed, or we can focus on what we did right. We can bemoan the fact that we did not do a perfect job, or we can be happy from whatever good we have brought into the world.
16. We will never feed all those who are hungry. We will never visit everyone who is sick. We will never be able to give enough clothing to the poor or find housing for all the homeless. But we can lend a hand to someone who has fallen. We can cheer up one person who is feeling down. We can put a sandwich into the hand of someone who is hungry and we can give respect to someone who is feeling alone. What difference will our small gesture make in the grand scheme of the world? It doesn’t matter, it will make a difference to the ones we help.
17. So take some time over the next few weeks and consider, not how far you have to go but how far you have already come. Stop looking at the dot on the page of your life, the imperfection that stands out so clearly and see all the white space, the good that you have been able to do. Take a look not only where you sinned, but look also at the many places you actually performed Mitzvot. That should be all the blessing you will need to get started on making your improvements for the year ahead.
18. True happiness is not in having never failed, having never sinned; happiness is knowing that every day, in many ways, large and small, we are getting better and better at living a holy life.
May God help us improve in the year ahead, and may God bless us for all the good in our lives, as we say …
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM