Parasha Ki Tavo

I've Got A Secret            
    Have you ever been driving around in your car, and a song comes on the radio, a song of say, Frank Sinatra, and he’s singing “I’ve got the world on a string” and that song is so upbeat, and you are feeling great because it is a beautiful spring day, and you are driving down the road, and you think, “That song is just right for me!”  Or it’s a rainy day, and you just had a fight with your spouse, and Billy Holiday comes on the radio and she sings the blues, and you think “How does she understand how I feel?”  That song on the radio is going out to thousands of people, but it seems directed just to you. Or you are in synagogue, and your rabbi is giving a talk, and there is something that you hear that strikes a chord with what you are going through, and you wonder whether he is actually talking about you and your situation, but then you remember you never told him about that situation in your life, and yet, the words seem especially for you. 

                Reaching out in that public way is precisely what Moses had in mind in this week’s Torah portion.  The Israelites are encamped on the eastern border of the Land of Canaan.  Moses is about to die. He will not enter the Land with the people.  He gives last instructions.  As they enter the land under the leadership of Joshua, they are to divide into two groups.  Six tribes are to stand on  Mt.Eval and six tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim.  The Kohens and the Levites and the Holy Ark are to stand in the valley between the mountains.  The Levites will turn toward Mount Gerizim and shout out a blessing: ‘Blessed is the person who does not make idols” and the people on Mount Gerezim will respond with “AMEN”.  Then the Levites will turn toward Mount Eval and shout out: “Cursed is the person who makes idols” and everyone responds AMEN, and so forth until the series of prescribed blessings and curses is completed.                 This entire process is conceived of by Moses as a ceremony of reaffirming the covenant that a previous generation had made at Sinai. Imagine the huge sound of AMEN that would echo across the valley and against the mountains.  Imagine the impression that would make on the individual Israelite who participates in this ceremony.  This ritual is intended to fully impress upon the generation that is entering the Land of Israel the absolute seriousness of the choices they will make in their lives.                 Most interesting is the fact that all of the transgressions that are explicitly stated are things we do in private. Worshipping an idol in the privacy of one’s home, moving a boundary marker, putting a stumbling block in front of the blind, perverting justice, engaging in forbidden sexual acts, striking down ones fellow in secret, and accepting a bribe — all of these are transgressions that are carried out in secret, away from public view.  Imagine what it would be like to be there, along with tens of thousands of others, standing there on one of the mountains.  You are probably standing with family and friends.  From the Levites below you hear “Cursed be the one who….” And then a sin THAT YOU HAVE SECRETLY COMMITTED, THAT NOBODY ELSE KNOWS ABOUT” is spoken aloud.  I imagine that your heart skips a beat, and for a moment you think that you have been exposed.  The Levi’s shouted that one out JUST FOR YOU.  Someone knows your secret. Worse, you have to respond – “AMEN”.  “Cursed be the one who has accepted a bribe” and you HAVE to respond “amen”. If you don’t respond, “amen” then your friends and family who are with you will suspect you have taken a bribe.  Your silence will speak volumes to them. Standing on the mountain, you are caught between a rock and a hard place!  To remain silent is to admit guilt – to respond with “amen” is to curse yourself.                 Isn’t that what we do when we sin?  Do we not curse ourselves?  When we commit a transgression we swim against the moral current of the universe.  That makes it harder- going in our lives, it wears us down, it tires us out, it corrupts our relationships and it shortens our lives.  Teshuva, repentence, can be thought of as turning our lives around, of swimming with that moral current which invigorates us, repairs our relationships, and extends our lives.  That is what the prophet Isaiah means when he says that those who trust in G-d, “shall renew their strength….. they shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not grow faint.” When you “trust in G-d” you “go with the flow” in a way. It’s exhausting to swim against the current of the will of G-d.  Like swimming in a rip tide, you can do it for a while, but it will eventually pull you under. Trust in G-d doesn’t inoculate you from the problems in life. When one trusts in G-d it doesn’t insure that life will be easy, that we won’t have to face challenges.  It means that when we do have problems; when we do face challenges in life, our trust in G-d will help us deal with them, help us overcome them.  Our membership in a religious community will help us cope with them.  Rabbi Harold Kushner says that trust in G-d is like taking out a home insurance policy. Taking out an insurance policy doesn’t mean that fire, hurricanes, and tornados won’t strike your home.  It means that if your home is struck by a disaster, you will have something to help you get through a difficult time.  

                The ceremony at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal happened only once.  But there are similarities between that ceremony and our yearly ritual of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we confess our sins communally.  But these sins are not committed communally; they are committed by an individual.  When we hear the sin that we in fact did commit, of which we are in fact guilty, I hope our hearts will skip a beat, that we will feel some shame and embarrassment, and the shock of recognition will motivate us to change our ways. I hope we may feel that it is written in the prayer book just for us.
                When we sin we only punish ourselves and those who love us.  We hold in our own hands the ability to bless and curse.  This New Year, choose blessing… choose life.

Shabbat Shalom