Friday, September 19, 2008

Parshat Ki Tavo - פרשת כי תבוא: Say It Out Loud!

This week's Parsha provides an important tool for admitting our mistakes, "When you have finished taking all the tithes of your grain ... make the following declaration before God: "I have removed all the sacred portions ... I have given the appropriate portions to the Levite, the orphan and the widow..." (Deut. 26:12-13)

The Torah is telling us that to evaluate our spiritual status properly, the key ingredient is to speak it out loud. "Make the following declaration before God" - i.e. articulate verbally where we have succeeded and where we have failed.

When we read the second Parsha of the Sh'ma, we are supposed to be thinking of the concept of reward and punishment. We say "And it shall be if you shall hearken to my commandments that..." that XYZ will then happen. But what is X, Y and Z? It continues a verse later by saying, "And I shall give you the rain for your land, in it's time, the early and the late rains, and you shall gather your grains, your wine and oil harvests." What on earth? What do we care about all that? We want money, or peace, or anything else! Yes, it's very nice to get our crops in on time, but is this truly our reward?

Everyone knows that Adam and Eve made a bad mistake in the Garden of Eden. But was their primary mistake eating from the fruit? No. A look at the verses (Genesis 3:8-13) reveals something much deeper:

"[After eating, Adam and Eve] hid themselves from God among the trees of the Garden. God called to Adam and said: "Where are you?"
"I heard Your voice in the Garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid."
God asked: "Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat?"
Adam replied: "The woman that you gave to be with me - she gave me to eat from the tree."
So God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?"
The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

Rashi explains the sequence: God obviously knows what Adam has done, yet He does not attack with an accusation. Rather, God strikes up a conversation, asking in a gentle, non-threatening way: "Where are you?" He gives Adam a chance to admit his mistake, and express regret. Instead Adam hides and blames it all on Eve. Eve passes responsibility off to the snake. Everyone claims they did nothing wrong!
That was their worst mistake.

God knows we're not perfect - He's the one who created us this way! But He does expect us to take responsibility for our actions and admit when we've done wrong. Because without doing so, there is no hope to correct it in the future. (Incidentally, the deeper meaning of "Ayeka - Where are you?" is that God asked us where we are, and our response is that we chose to hide. So God decided to play ball. We wanted to be hidden, so he let us hide away from him. He became from hidden from us. After all, one can't hide when the one you are trying to hide from is breathing down your neck!)

This lesson can be applied to raising children. Imagine walking into the kitchen to find your child up on the counter and reaching his hand into the biscuit tin. Don't accuse, don't attack, and don't back him into a corner. The deed of snatching cookies is already done; the only question that remains is how he will deal with the mistake. Try a casual, "Hey, what's going on with the biscuits?" This gives him a chance to state the truth without feeling threatened.

I have heard it explained that the agricultural terms in the Sh'ma are merely an allegory for what's happening above. Our harvest is really in the world to come. If we listen, and are deserving of a reward, then whereas other nations will receive a worldly reward, ours is a spiritual one. We shall have a good crop. Conversely, if we do not hearken to Hashem, then we will have to suffer as "Hashem will be angry with us, and will stop the Heaven, and there will be no rains, and the ground shall not give it's yield." We shall not merit what is due us. If we commit ourselves properly, entirely, to the point where we can admit our mistakes honestly, we shall then merit.

In Western society, aversion to apology is a widespread malady. Whether somebody cuts another off in traffic, or destroys a marriage, admitting guilt is out of vogue. In fact, pop psychology has done all it can to remove whole concept of "guilt" from our lexicon. It's much easier to rationalize our mistakes away. And it's unhealthy to feel guilt, they say. "Suppress it!"

The ArtScroll Machzor explains, "As an intelligent, thinking, imaginative being, man has all sorts of thoughts flashing constantly through his mind. Even sublime thoughts of remorse and self-improvement are not strange to him, but they do not last. For his thoughts to have lasting meaning, he must distil them into words, because the process of thought culminates when ideas are expressed and clarified. That is not as easy as it sounds. It is usually excruciatingly difficult for people to admit explicitly that they have done wrong. We excuse ourselves. We refuse to admit the truth. We shift blame. We deny the obvious. We excel at rationalizing. But the person who wrenches from himself the unpleasant truth, 'I have sinned,' has performed a great and meaningful act."

This lesson is crucial as we approach the High Holidays, the time when we stand in front of the mirror and see the stark reality of who we are. Maimonides explains:

"For every Mitzvah in the Torah that a person transgresses, he needs to confess before God ... What does this consist of? The person says: 'God, I have sinned before you; I have done this specific act; I am ashamed of my actions; and I will never do it again." (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1)

In Judaism, confession is a totally private matter, between you and God. In fact, the Hebrew word for confession - l'hit-vadot - is the "reflexive" form which connotes acting upon oneself. Though we speak to God, He knows the truth already.

The problem is when we're not willing to admit the truth to ourselves. As the prophet Jeremiah says, "God will judge us when we say 'I didn't sin.'" Incredibly, the incident of Adam and Eve occurred on the very first Rosh Hashana, the day that humanity was born. Rosh Hashana is thus the most opportune day to repair that mistake.

Shabbat Shalom, and let it be that the coming month of Tishrei be a time of spiritual growth and renewal for us all.

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