Yesterday on Facebook, a cousin posted a cartoon of two people in facing desks, in which one person said to the other, “Well, you can agree with me or you can be wrong.” I laughed.
And earlier still that day, we had a family discussion in which I was told that I could not expect a promise on a topic, even if what I was asking for was about safety.
Earlier that day, someone else emailed me – not for the first time – that something someone – me or someone else – had done “Has got to stop.” No questions, no discussion, just has to stop.
And earlier still, a friend and colleague asked my perspective on her behavior in an incident and I had to find the words to offer her a tochecha—feedback or what the torah calls a rebuke–so that she could hear it.
And before that… well, the whole day kind of seemed like that.
It seemed like a perfect Elul kind of day, where I had to look deep inside myself to see how my reactions and responses were triggering or promoting or inciting.
And it also seemed to fit into my reading of the week’s torah portion, Ki Tavo, nearing the end of Deuteronomy. It is another portion replete with Moses’s blessings and curses, where we are told, if we follow God’s teachings, we will be blessed and if we stray off the course, we will be cursed.
And those of us reading it in hindsight know that our ancestors did not follow God’s teachings and we, the Children of Israel, were definitely cursed. In some ways the portion reads as though it were written after the fact – and indeed it well may have been. When the great catastrophe comes (or came), this is what will (or did) happen.
When we do these things, Moses tells us we will be cursed: If we accept bribes, we not just break the law, but subvert justice and the judicial system (indeed one of the thrice repeated prayers in the weekday Amidah refers to restoration of justice as part of our ideal society). If we lie with people too close to us (various forms of incest), we introduce chaos into our family and our community. If we insult our parents, we harm our own homes and primal relationships. If we take away the rights of the poor, widow and orphan, we undermine our social contract. If we mistreat a person with a disability, we damage the moral fabric of society. If we cheat in business, we put our economic system in jeopardy. And of course, if we worship other gods — money, beauty, celebrity, we rupture our relationship with the holiness in the universe.
We know that some people get away with cheating in business, I’ve seen someone run over the cane of a blind person and just drive away with impunity, and sometimes, it’s hard to give to every person asking for a handout. In Portland last week, we were asked by 3 people in 10 feet for money, and it felt overwhelming. But it felt better to give something in the end than not to. I remember a discussion with Fr. Matt, who said he brings a stack of $1 bills when he goes to San Francisco, specifically for this purpose.
And yet, and yet, those curses seem, at first glance, so out of proportion to the sin. It reminds me of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. But it is fascinating to note that many of the curses echo the plagues in Egypt: pestilence, boils, darkness, dust, bugs, blood, death, animal disease… And this time, instead of being redeemed through plagues, we will be the victims. And indeed, one of the curses is to return to Egypt where Pharaoh will rule us.
One interpretation of these curses is that they result from behavior that is so like Egypt, in that it is behavior in which self—ego—is more important than community. Egypt is the stand-in for everything that is not holy, for behavior that does not recognize that how we are in relationship matters – in relationship to our parents, our family, our community, our business partners, the vulnerable, the accused. It all matters.
Sometimes, I think Moses is trying to act like a caring parent, trying to warn his children what will happen if they follow a particular path. And yet we all know that by a certain point, we can talk until we are blue in the face and our children will make their own choices. Even if we are right and they are wrong.
I think Moses is trying to convince the children to understand that there are true consequences – to ourselves and to the community – if we cross these important lines. Yes, people get away with things on this earth, and karma might not always kick in, but there are true consequences for sins against family and community, against justice.
The kabbalists believed that such sins ruptured the fabric of the universe, tilted it away from good. I read an article from Haaretz about the potential chemical attack this week on Syrian civilians in which the author, Ari Shavit, commented that if we are a society that allows this to stand unanswered, then what does this say about us? For him, it heralded the end of the world, in much the same type of language as our torah portion.
We all commit sins on these lines (not chemical warfare) – maybe we mistreat an employee, or gossip, or cause someone unnecessary pain, or we bribe – whether unintentionally or intentionally. We may avoid some of the listed behaviors like the plague (incest has a high “ick” factor for most people), but find others hard to stay away from (how we treat the vulnerable, or whether we make inappropriate jokes about the hearing impaired, for example). Sometimes we think – oh, it’s no big deal, they know my heart, they know I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. But sometimes our behavior does hurt despite our basic goodness, and friendships are ended, relationships suffer, estrangements happen as a result.
Because we forgot the consequences of forgetting the teaching: that our family and community matter in the cosmic, physical, emotional and spiritual senses. That the process matters at least as much as the content. We may think, because people know our heart, that they will overlook how we said something in a moment of anger or a moment of worry or a moment of distraction. But what we said may have cut them, even without meaning to. And so, all our good intentions, our good heart, may be covered over or buried under these ill chosen words.
Now in the midst of Elul, is the time to sit back and reflect, to look at what we’ve done well and what we’ve done that has hurt others. Now is the time to ask for forgiveness, and to mend our ways…