Parashat Ki Tavo 5777

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 8 September 2017

Ki Tavo is a portion that contains the blessings and curses – the rewards and punishments for keeping or transgressing the covenant between God and the Israelites once the latter entered the Land.

My instinctive reaction is to feel the Torah alienating me rather than compelling me to commit to my path as a Liberal Jew. However, we often use a negative approach, even if it is a gentle prod towards a particular behavioural path.

At a time when our children throughout the country are returning to school after their long summer breaks, our thoughts and prayers follow them up the school path and over the threshold into their classrooms, ‘now please carefully pay attention to the teacher…and then you (and we) shall surely be blessed… because if you do not, there are no treats tonight.’

We do not want to motivate through a stick any more than God wanted to punish our ancient ancestors, or us. Yet we find it hard to contain ourselves.

God urges the Israelites using a doubled form of the verb – im shamoa-tishma – with the intent of ‘if you obey…’ We know that this works for many of our children and yet there are those children or times when all children have not found this to be motivational towards ‘good’ behavior. Intentionally or otherwise, the child chooses the opposite path and the outcome ensues that is announced with im lo tishma – if you do not obey (using a single verb as one does not wish a curse/punishment upon your child).

However, we know of times when we have ignored instructions and the outcome was not altogether ‘bad.’

This section of the Torah displays a simplistic worldview that is contradictory to contemporary reality and to a Judaism that recommends a balance between yetzer ha’ra and yetzer ha’tov – the ‘bad’ and ‘good’ inclinations we all hold. The rabbis understood that without a little bit of risk-taking and moving beyond the boundaries of rules, creativity and progression would be stunted.

None of us want out children to get into trouble and yet I do indulge in a little giggle when one of my children misbehaves – of course not if it causes harm to others – and gently push the boundaries, exploring the world and all its potential.

Wishing all our children a super academic year of growth and development that brings not just ‘good’ grades but leads to blessings that fall on us and far beyond.
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