Sometimes it’s really hard to be a parent. I know when my daughter is suffering I turn into a mother bear defending her young. However, sometimes, there’s very little we can do as a parent – they have to figure it out themselves. No matter how right a mom is, sometimes that doesn’t matter. We look down the path our children are trodding and we see disaster and mayhem. Sometimes when we look at their choices, the likelihood of a good outcome seems pretty minimal.
How much do we tell them? How much do we try to warn them what happens if they go down a chosen path? Will they listen to us, or turn us off, as just so much noise?
In Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, nearing the end of the last of the five books of Moses, we watch Moses as he, like any attentive parent, tries to teach the Israelites the consequences for going astray, wandering off the path God has laid out for us. Moses stands half of us on Mt. Ebal and half on Mt. Gezirim and choreographs an amazing ritual in which the Children of Israel have to acknowledge that we understand the behaviors that would warrant curses, a long string of curses. It will be bad, it will be very bad. If you don’t believe me, turn to Devarim – or Deuteronomy 28:15 through 68. There are 44 verses of curses. 44. To put that into perspective, the whole of the Akedah, the story of the Binding of Isaac—the torah portion for Rosh Hashanah, is only 19 verses. These curses run more than twice as long.
What is the path Moses tries to keep us on, in order to avert such a disaster? Do we have to keep each of the 613 commandments? No, it’s actually a pretty short list:
- No idols
- No degrading mom and dad
- No moving property boundaries, so as to steal someone else’s property
- No stumbling block before the blind, or leading someone off the path of virtue
- No mistreating the stranger, orphan or widow
- No sex with the wrong people (there are several different people who fall into this category)
- No sex with animals
- No murder in secret, which Rashi, the medieval commentator believed was malicious talk
- No accepting bribes to convict an innocent person of murder.
It’s all about how we treat others, especially the most vulnerable—widow, orphan, immigrant, person with disabilities, seniors—and about sexual transgressions—which are also about how we treat people we are in close relationship with.
As a mom, I hear this portion as Moses providing an accurate, albeit graphic picture of the natural consequences to his flock, his children, as a society and as individuals, if they stray from these minimal requirements. Don’t touch this fire, you’ll get burned.
What happens when people disrespect their elders on a communal level? Or when greed is more important than good? Or we care more about Aphrodite than God? Or when we mistreat the widow, orphan or stranger, that threesome that represents all of the vulnerable in the community? Or we lead people away from taking care of each other and toward individual ego gratification? What will society look like?
A couple of weeks ago, we read in the parasha Ekev, the exhortation to circumcise our hearts, removing the thick calluses that form as a result of the behaviors I shared a minute ago. The callousness covers the heart and soul of the individual and the community… it’s not a curse from God: it’s entirely an outgrowth of our behavior. We can all spin stories of what happens when evil prevails:
The financial crisis we’re in now. Both the bankers and Wall Street types and the people who were not sold predatory loans who are walking away from their mortgages rob us of our financial security.
The unwillingness of our legislators to understand the importance of taxes to maintain the community’s needs. We Jews have imposed taxes on ourselves from the early days in the wilderness.
The son of a dear friend had an addiction issue with marijuana and alcohol, but especially pot. He smoked throughout high school, and his parents tried to tell him what would happen if he continued down that path. I watched my friend’s anguish as she knew what would happen to him on the path he walked; she could give him some guidance, and indeed set limits for him in terms of behavior acceptable in their house. In the end, she was right to worry: he didn’t make it through his first year of college, and had to live at home as he went through treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). He slipped a couple of times, and they understood the nature of illness to include relapse. It’s a story that is common throughout the AA and NA community. Baruch Hashem, he’s now in acting school, after paying dues at the local community college, and earning scholarships, with a bright future ahead of him.
I wonder how much my friend’s warnings to her son mattered. Whether her wisdom went in one ear and out the other. Like Moses – the warnings he gave us didn’t actually serve his intended purpose. We strayed, we sinned, we acted badly.
So what’s the lesson in this torah portion for a parent who is worried about her or his children’s choices? First, that we’re not the first parents to struggle with this issue. That alone helps. Second, we have to provide every tool we can, laying out the blessings and the curses relevant to each choice and pray, pray with all our might, that the parenting we’ve provided all these years will eventually sink in. Finally, to find the grace to let go and pray for the best, that the Source of Being will be there, that our children will be able at any moment to turn back, begin again and be safe.
Cane yehi ratzon. May it be Your will…