September 13, 2011
Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
“In these tough economic times ...”
These words have become ubiquitous — sometimes spoken by a public servant advocating a consumer-relief measure, other
times by an advertiser announcing a price reduction. We are, indeed, in tough economic times, and our lives and the lives of so many people we love and care about have been negatively affected. Even worse, as is natural and understandable, our financial suffering tends to darken our entire view of ourselves and obscures much of the goodness of our lives from view. The economic crisis exacts a toll not only on our wallets, but also on our spirits.
I do not know under what economic circumstances the great talmudic teacher Rav (in Bava Metzia 107a) offered his interpretation of what are among Parashat Ki Tavo’s most famous verses. But they are of great importance and inspiration in these tough economic times.
The verses in question occur close to the beginning of the parasha, as Moshe describes the blessings that God will bestow upon us when we are faithful to His covenant. They are verses familiar to us from many a Jewish home’s wall hangings. “Blessed you shall be in the city. Blessed you shall be in the field. … Blessed you shall be in your comings, and blessed you shall be in your goings” (Deuteronomy 28:3-6). The simplest understanding of these blessings is that they pertain to the various realms of our economic activity, which would make them significant and meaningful blessings indeed. Yet Rav, interpreting these verses for his students, purposefully read them differently, and in doing so reminded them — and us — of what life’s deepest and truest blessings actually are.
“Blessed you shall be in the city” — in that your home will be near the synagogue.
“Blessed shall you be in the field” — in that your fields are near the city (i.e., you are able to come home every night).
“Blessed you shall be in your comings” — in that when you return from a journey your wife shall not be niddah (thus rendering marital intimacy permissible).
“Blessed shall you be in your goings” — here Rav plays on the Hebrew words for “goings,” rendering it “those who issue from you,” and interprets these words as a blessing that your offspring have the same praiseworthy traits that you do.
In interpreting the blessings this way, Rav is thoroughly adjusting our understanding of what it means to be blessed by God. He is urging us to look beyond the economic measure of blessing, one that invariably rises and falls as much as a result of mazel as anything else (see Talmud Moed Katan 28a for an interesting articulation of this). He is reminding us to recognize God’s deeper and ultimately significant blessings: the proximity of institutions — and people — who nourish our spiritual lives. The intimacy of love, and the opportunity to enjoy it. The privilege of raising children (or teaching students, who are compared to children), and the incomparable satisfaction of seeing them adopt the sacred values we have worked so hard to instill in them. These, too, are among the blessings that God provides. And they are the deepest blessings that He offers.
In addition, Rav is also implying that we should be thinking in completely different terms when we wonder each morning how our investments are doing. Our investments of truest significance and meaning are not monetary. They are the investments of attention and energy, which we make in the relationships and the places through which God embraces us and teaches us. These are the investments, Rav is teaching, that we need to keep a vigilant eye on, and to make sure that we are dedicating to them the resources that they need and deserve.
It is Elul, and the season of repentance and return is upon us again, the time for rekindling our yearning for God. One very basic way we achieve this is through rediscovering the true and deep blessings God has bestowed upon us. We do not pretend that everything is perfect, and we do not refrain from asking for additional blessings in the year to come. We just reawaken ourselves to the fact that we live in the presence of a benevolent God, Who desires our good, and Who has already extended His hand to us in very many ways. He is the God who has profoundly blessed us, and with whom we want to walk ... anew.