This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8.
My wife’s grandmother used a Yiddish expression whenever she heard of someone’s bad fortune: “We shouldn’t know from this!” I think she would have used that expression in response to this week’s Torah portion.
Nearing the end of his life, Moses convenes the people of Israel and adjures them to follow the laws that he has taught. To accentuate the need for the people’s fidelity, Moses states a set of blessings if the people observe the laws and a much longer list of curses if they fall short. Called the tocheicha, this list is very stringent; most Torah readers chant the words in a barely audible tone, as if to say, “We shouldn’t know from this.”
For many centuries, most Jewish thinkers have rejected the quid pro quo formulation of the parsha’s blessings and curses. After all, there are many people who suffer even if they have done what is right, and plenty of wrongdoers who prosper. I believe, however, that the tocheicha teaches an important concept: We should not believe that our behavior will not harm anybody. To the contrary, our neglect of proper behavior will carry consequences — for ourselves and for others. To put it succinctly, our actions matter.
In my work as chaplain at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, I’ve seen how this concept works. As people reach an advanced age, they engage in a process known as “life review.” They look back on their years and seek resolution — an understanding of how their lives have had meaning and purpose.
I was talking with a man in his 90s, who, after a few minutes of small talk, suddenly told me he had been physically abused by his father, and that he had carried the scars for all of his adult life. It had affected his relationship with his wife and family; he was concerned that they would not forgive him.
We talked for about a half hour. Near the end of the conversation he remarked, “Isn’t it amazing how the sins of one man can have an effect on several generations.” And he was much more relaxed than I had ever seen. A few weeks later, he developed pneumonia and was admitted to hospice care. Shortly before he died, I asked if he remembered our conversation. He had, and he said it helped him prepare for his imminent departure. The Torah portion tells us this is an important Jewish value.
Questions to consider
Do bad things happen to good people? What can we do to mitigate undeserved misfortune?
Do you know anyone who could benefit from life review? How can you help him/her do it?
Rabbi James Michaels is the director of pastoral care at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.