This was a d’var Torah I gave 5 years ago on the upcoming Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which corresponds to Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8.
This week in the Torah, Moses gathers the Israelites together to give them instructions for a major group ritual they are to do after he has died and they have crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The ritual is intended to re-affirm the covenant between God and Israel. Moses tells the people to divide the various Israelite tribes into two groups. One group will go to the top of Mount Gerizim, and the other to the neighboring Mount Eval. These two mountains are in the West Bank, and the city of Nablus sits in the valley between them.
Anyway, once the tribes would reach the summits of the two mountains, Moses says that the priests and Levites will gather in the valley in between them. Then, the Levites will proclaim a series of curses that will happen to anyone who breaks God’s commandments, followed by a series of blessings that will happen to anyone who keeps God’s commandments. After the recitation of each blessing or curse, all of the people are to proclaim the word “amen,” indicating their acceptance of the covenant. The Hebrew words for blessing and curse are beracha and k’lalla.
Here are some examples: Cursed be the person who makes an idol to worship in secret; cursed be the person who perverts the justice due to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; cursed be the person who secretly murders their neighbor; cursed be the person who takes a bribe to slay an innocent person.
And on the blessings side of things: it shall come to pass that if you listen diligently to God and observe God’s commandments, then blessed shall you be in the city and in the fields; blessed shall you be in your comings and goings; blessed and fruitful will be your offspring, livestock and crops, and all the nations of the world will see that you’ve been blessed.
In many ways, the message is simple: every moment in life each of us is given the free will to do good or evil. Choose to do good, and reap the blessings. Choose to do evil, and suffer the consequences. The specific commandments that Moses presents, especially during the list of curses, are very clear cut. There’s not a lot of moral gray around behaviors like taking a bribe to allow the murder of an innocent person, or deliberately skewing justice so that orphans don’t get their basic needs met.
I think generally all of us want to choose the beracha and not the k’lalla, the blessing path, not the path of bad karma. But what about when life confronts us with really difficult ethical choices? What about those situations in which the right thing to do isn’t such a certainty – when there are different perspectives on an issue, or some moral gray? I’m talking about the kinds of decisions that are bound to leave us with some self-doubt before, during, and after you make a decision and take some form of action.
This is when the game of life gets trickier. Sometimes life presents us with agonizing choices and difficult decisions. We’ve all been there. The early rabbis of the Mishnah proclaimed, Hevu metunim ba-din – be careful and deliberate in making judgments. It’s often when we’re taking their advice to heart that we struggle the most with tricky ethical decisions. When we’re faced with these hard moral decisions, some of us turn to friends or colleagues to gather different perspectives before making a choice. Some of us ask God to help us know the Divine will and give us a sense of how to try to act to further it. Some of us seek stillness – meditation, quiet, allowing the frenzy of feelings and thoughts we may have to shift into a parade of passing events that we attempt to notice and accept, so that we move into decision-making with a clearer mind and spirit.
One of the hardest things about making a decision in a not so clear-cut situation is that we sometimes have to wait a lot longer than we would like to see the results of our decision. Depending on how neurotic we are – and culturally speaking the blessings of being Jewish have tended to go hand in hand with the curse of being neurotic – staying patient and waiting for the results to fully come in can be a big challenge.
I happened to meet with someone this week who shared with me a line from a Psalm she had been studying, and I think that this line speaks to this question I’ve raised. The Psalm is number 27, which happens to be a Psalm that we sing a few verses from daily throughout the month of Elul, the month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We’ll sing those verses at the end of services tonight, in fact.
The verses we’ll sing come from the middle of the Psalm, but the verse that this person had been taken with is the poem’s final line. In Hebrew it reads:
It translates to:
Wait for God. Be strong, and give courage to your heart. Indeed, wait for God.
As you can hear, the poetic structure of this line is A-B-A.
In the context of this Psalm, King David, who is the speaker, is waiting for God’s rescue from peril. He’s waiting for relief from the anxiety and uncertainty of the moment. God’s arrival will bring inner peace – which he longs for, and which he is trying with all his being to trust will arrive – but as some modern rocker sang some years ago, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
When we have to make a tough decision in life and we do the best we can to choose the path of blessing, not of curse, this one verse of text offers a message of patience and reassurance. Wait for God – for Truth to become clearer, and for that clarity to open the gates of serenity. Be strong and give courage to your heart. And wait.
The middle phrase of this verse can be translated a different way which adds another layer of meaning. The Hebrew words חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ can also read, “Be strong, and God will give your heart courage.” In the gendered God-language of the Biblical period, the word “God” actually appears in the ancient Hebrew as the pronoun “he” with a capital H. I say this for textual accuracy’s sake, while recognizing our community’s commitment to inclusive God-language. To bring it back to the text, what this alternate translation gives us is the message that if we reach down for some strength within ourselves, God will help by infusing our hearts with courage.
Difficult moral decisions are a part of life, and therefore, a part of God’s creation. They are part of the blessings and curses of the human experience. They test us, and sometimes wear us out, but they also give us the chance to grow. As we move into the final days before the High Holy Days, may God bless us all with the attributes of sincere discernment and patience, and with the desire to do the Divine will and in seeking to understand what that might be.