August 24, 2010
The Blessings of God’s Broken Promises
Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
All too often, we are confronted with life’s unfairness. How could someone so kind suffer so terribly? How could someone so ruthless enjoy wealth earned at the expense of the vulnerable and powerless? How is it that with greater or lesser frequency — and for better or worse — our own fate does not align with our virtue? Our despair or relief at such moral inequities reflects our intuitive expectation of just consequences for our choices and behavior. Given the Torah’s repeated assurances that adherence to God’s mandates begets material reward — and acting otherwise begets punishment — such inequities often give rise to personal crises of faith.
The latter half of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, appears to present one of the Torah’s clearest and most confounding recountings of God’s promise of just consequences for our actions: “All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you obey the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:2). What follows thereafter is a list of concrete and material blessings, guaranteed as consequences of our adherence to God’s commandments. Several paragraphs later, a lengthy list of gruesome punishments follows a promise of severe consequences should we fail to live our lives in accord with God’s commandments.
Our personal experience and our observations of others might appear to suggest that God’s promise of an equitable world, as the Torah presents it, is a broken promise. However, a midrashic interpretation of one of the material rewards guaranteed in this week’s Torah portion for good behavior might hold an important key to uncovering the blessings of what we might mistakenly construe as God’s broken promises.
Among the blessings guaranteed in the Torah portion is the following: “You will be blessed in your comings and in your goings” (Deuteronomy 28:6). The plain meaning of this verse seems obvious; our daily interactions and transactions will be blessed with peace and success, if we are to observe God’s commandments.
A fascinating midrashic alternative offers a different interpretation: If we live our lives in accord with the Torah’s precepts, then just as we are welcomed into this world with joy and celebration (our “coming”), recognized for the hope and miraculous wonder that each new life represents, we will be similarly celebrated upon our departure from this earth for the good that we will have done along the way (our “going”).
At first glance, it might appear that the author of this commentary was troubled, as we often are, by the discrepancy between the plain and obvious meaning of God’s promise on the one hand (that we would benefit materially and in this lifetime for the good we do) and the reality we live and observe on the other hand (that actions and consequences do not align fairly anywhere near as often as we would like). The central purpose of this midrashic commentary, perhaps, was to avoid a theological dilemma by avoiding one of God’s most obvious and problematic broken promises.
It seems unlikely, however, that so obvious an attempt to avoid theological complication could have sufficed for our ancestors any more so than it might satisfy us today. There might, however, be several deeper messages in this midrashic commentary, as relevant to us today as they were to Jews 1,500 years ago or longer.
First, and more generally, God’s greatest blessings may be obscured by a more literal reading of the Torah and its promises. These assurances might never have been intended to offer guarantees of God’s equitable control of the outcomes of human choices, but rather to share with us wisdom and guidance so that we might both seek and seize opportunities to achieve ethical heights and spiritual depth, and inspire others to do so.
Second, and more specifically, the more likely consequences — not promises — of a life lived as much as reasonably possible in accord with God’s teachings of Torah are far greater and more important than any literal interpretation can grasp. Not only might we earn the respect and appreciation of our peers for our attempt to live in such accord — so much so that we might be celebrated upon our departure from this world, as we were welcomed so joyously upon our arrival — but we are more likely to inspire our children to live in such accord, as well. For this reason more than any other, I believe, the midrash teaches that we will be celebrated upon our passing as upon our arrival; the single most important consequence of a life lived in accord with the Torah’s precepts is that our children will know what about our lives is most worthy of celebration, and they are then more likely to merit a celebration of their own Jewishly inspired and connected achievements among those who will one day remember them.
May we all be so blessed by God’s broken promises.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid (nertamid.com), an inclusive Conservative synagogue on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
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