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August 30, 2007

The Well-Blessed Person

Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/the_wellblessed_person_20070831

This week's portion, Ki Tavo, is best known for its bikkurim (first fruits) passages, the verses we are commanded to recite when bringing our first fruits to the Kohen at the Temple in Jerusalem (Devarim 26:5-10). You will recognize the text as one of the most frequently quoted passages in the Torah because it comprises the core of the Passover seder service, as it concisely recounts the story of travel to and enslavement in Egypt and ultimate liberation.

Ki Tavo also is the source for the blessings the nation will recite at Mount Gerizim and the curses at Mount Eyval, when they will enter the Promised Land. And, indeed, when the Jews enter the land, they proceed to the Mountains of Blessing and Curse as they have been commanded (Joshua 8:30-35).

Less frequently discussed, our portion also shares a fascinating insight into human nature, as well as the distinction between grumbling and satisfaction. Our teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu, looks at the nation, as his time on earth almost is done, and essentially asks them: "Uh, has anyone here ever noticed that, through 40 years' peregrinating through the desert and trekking to a land that unexpectedly proved to be a generation away, no one's garments ever wore out? Or that no one's sandals ever wore out? Like, has anyone among the millions of us ever noticed that?"

OK, Moshe does not literally ask it as a question; rather, he states an observation. But, to me, it sure sounds like a question: "You have seen all that [Hashem] has done before your eyes in Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land - the great miracles that your eyes have seen, the great signs and wonders. [Yet, Hashem] has not given you a [discerning] heart to understand and eyes to see and ears to hear until today. I led you on this 40-year wilderness trek, and your garments never wore out on your bodies, and your shoes never wore out on your feet" (Deuteronomy 29:1-4).

The reference hearkens back to Devarim (8:2-4): "And you should remember the entirety of this journey that [He] has walked you through the desert these 40 years.... And He fed you the manna - [a food] that you did not know, and that your ancestors did not know, [all] in order to educate you that man does not live by bread alone but, rather, man lives by all that comes from God's mouth. Your garment never wore out, nor did your foot swell these 40 years."

This is quite a thing. It is dramatic. Indeed, in the Book of Joshua, we encounter a terrified people, the inhabitants of Giv'on, desperately trying to fool the Jews into entering a promise that Joshua and Israel will not make war on them. Joshua's armies have been unstoppable since entering the land, as one nation after another has fallen to Hashem's promise to give the land to our people as an eternal inheritance, and the proximate Giv'onites reel from the fear of their own destruction. So the Giv'onites dress themselves in profoundly worn-out, patched shoes and worn-out garments (Joshua 9:5), correctly relying on that appearance to convince Joshua they are not locals. Joshua sees them, and he infers they truly must have come from a far distant land. Why else would they wear such worn-out shoes and garments?

So, if the physical deterioration of clothing and footwear is so obvious a sign of distant travel, and if the Jews have not sustained any such wear through 40 years of wandering in the desert, why does Moshe need to point it out to them? Isn't it obvious?

Apparently, it's not obvious to every person how good things are when things are good. Feed a person manna from heaven, and he wants quail. Give him the Torah, give him a Promised Land, lead him through battle without a defeat - and he wants to turn back at the first intimation of challenge and risk.

And it is not only a biblical-era phenomenon. Famous actors and actresses have all the fame and money they could ask for. But, for them, yesterday's fun - literally, the fun of just a few hours ago - is forgotten. In their relentless pursuit of new thrills, they seem unable to pause and just say, "I am satisfied."

Are we all that different? When we are sick, we are miserable - sneezing, coughing, sore throat. But when we go months consecutively in good health, do we pause to think: "Thank you God for blessing me with such remarkably good health, despite all my moving parts"? When life is good - we have employment while others face worse, we have friends who stand by us, and our significant others care about us - do we realize how blessed we are? Frankly, we have it so good that, even if a pair of shoes wears well and garments remain intact, we comfortably buy new wardrobes to remain fashionable. Do we thank God with a blessing - "Shehecheyanu" - for bringing us to this day?

So why do some of us always kvetch and complain, constantly needing reminders of the miracles of God's daily blessings?

I don't know. But in the face of the kvetchers, all we need do to remain happy is remember the blessings we receive every day - not only the miracles and the wonders, but also just the good stuff. The simple stuff. The garments that do not wear out and the shoes that last.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.

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