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Ki Tav0

09/01/2023 10:37:19 AM


Life would be so much simpler if everything went according to logical reasoning. In an orderly and predictable world, those who worked harder would earn more. Those who were kind would only know kindness. Those who treated others badly would suffer the consequences, and even Billy Joel would agree that only the irreparably bad should ever, ever die young. Sound good?

20th century American popular culture provided a hefty dose of this optimistic logic, and we have no shortage of adages that remind us of what we need to do if we want certain outcomes. When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles at you, the likes of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday reminded us, in a song penned in 1928. When you wish upon a star, Jiminy Cricket assured us in 1940, anything your heart desires will come to you. The latter half of the century saw a turn toward the sadder but wiser brand of optimism. There can be miracles when you believe, sang Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston in 1998’s Prince of Egypt, striking a similar note to the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “You can’t always get what you want,” which acknowledges that “if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need.” In some ways, we are culturally programmed for optimism, and inequalities and injustice still tend to bring shock and disbelief, potentially knocking us off our feet and challenging our core understanding of the world.

This week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tavo, contains long lists of logical blessings and curses, and in a way, they contain all the predictability that one could hope for in divine reassurances. Bad behavior? You will get punished. Good behavior? “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” When you’re smiling (and respecting commandments), the whole world will indeed smile at you! And your children. And your basket. And your kneading bowl. Blessings! Blessings! Everywhere, blessings!

It is hard for most of us today to subscribe to such a simple, logical, and frankly transactional world view. We know far too well that many people who are kind, good, and generous will suffer for no good reason, and that incredibly selfish people will find ways to profit off the most vulnerable. We know, as Harold Kushner’s famous 1981 book reminded us, that bad things sometimes happen to good people.

If you have never read Kushner’s bestselling book, I strongly recommend that you check it out. It speaks to our need for logic, our desire to have the universe behave in predictable patterns, and the struggle it can be to keep any kind of faith when your world caves in.  Among other things, Kushner encourages us to approach faith with a more nuanced and compassionate perspective, and that is what comes to mind when I look at this week’s Torah portion. We want to believe that we will get good things in return for good actions. And often, we do! But not always. And while there are no guarantees of just rewards, I would argue that we should continue doing our best, not because we are promised blessings or fear curses, but because our best can bring blessings to those around us, too.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rebecca Abbate

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784