Torah Weekly

For the week ending 28 August 2021 / 20 Elul 5781

Parashat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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When the Jewish People dwell in the Land of Israel, the first fruits are to be taken to the Temple and given to the kohen. This is done in a ceremony that expresses recognition that it is Hashem Who guides the history of the Jewish People throughout the ages. This passage forms one of the central parts of the Pesach Haggadah that we read at the Seder.

On the last day of Pesach of the fourth and seventh years of the seven-year shemitta cycle, a person must recite a disclosure stating that he has indeed distributed the tithes to the appropriate people in the prescribed manner. With this mitzvah, Moshe concludes the commandments that Hashem has told him to give to the Jewish People. Moshe exhorts them to walk in Hashem’s ways, because they are set aside as a treasured people to Him.

When the Jewish People cross the Jordan River, they are to make a new commitment to the Torah. Huge stones are to be erected, and the Torah is to be written on them in the world's seventy primary languages. Afterwards, they are to be covered over with a thin layer of plaster. Half of the tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim, and half on Mount Eval, and the Levi'im will stand in a valley between the two mountains. The Levi'im will recite twelve commandments, and all the people will answer "Amen" to both the blessings and the curses. Moshe then details the blessings that will be bestowed upon the Jewish People, blessings that are both physical and spiritual. However, if the Jewish People do not keep the Torah, Moshe details a chilling picture of destruction, resulting in exile and wandering among the nations.


Fear of Elul

“But if you do not hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G‑d, to observe, to perform all His commandments and all these decrees that I command you today, then all the curses will come upon you and overtake you.” (28:15)

There's a well-known tradition that in Europe before the war, when the chazan would announce in shul that “Rosh Chodesh Elul will be on day(s) such as such…” — you could hear the dull thud of some people fainting to the floor. Such was the fear and trepidation that was caused by those words and the approach of Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.

I must say I feel a similar trepidation when I hear those words in shul, but likely for a different reason. When confronted with the enormous prospect of having to turn my life and my emotions upside down, I go into a panic that results in total spiritual paralysis. Fear of Elul.

In 1907 Robert Yerkes and John Dodson conducted one of the first experiments that illuminated a link between anxiety and performance. They saw that mice became more motivated to complete mazes when given electric shocks of increasing intensity — but only up to a certain point. Above a certain threshold, they began to hide, rather than perform. Yerkes and Dodson applied this idea to the human mind,enunciatinga core idea that our nervous system has a Goldilocks zone of arousal. Too little, and you remain in the comfort zone where boredom sets in. But, too much, and you enter the ‘panic’ zone, which also stalls progress.

I’m in the panic zone.

My esteemed rabbi and teacher once told me that, as a young boy in Chicago, his European grandmother gave him a short talk on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. She then admonished him to keep the Torah, warning him in Yiddish with words that loosely translate as “In the next world, they hit you with iron bars.” I’m not sure too many grandmothers give that kind of encouragement to a Bar Mitzvah boy nowadays.

In 1600 Samuel Butler wrote, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Meaning: “If you do not punish a child when they do something wrong, they will not learn what is right.” Times have changed. We get stressed by the mere thought that our WhatsApp is not working.

Rabbi Noach Orlowek once said that the best kind of education is to “catch your children doing something right.” Positive reinforcement works miracles — and for our generation is possibly the only road to improvement.

So, this Elul, I thought, rather than thinking about all the things that I’m doing wrong and had promised G-d last Yom Kippur that I’d never do again, I would think about all the things I am doing right — and how great it feels! When I do that, it makes me feel close to Hashem, and when I feel that, I want to feel even better and closer.

So, last thing at night, I go through a catalogue of things I did right during the day. For example, the first thing I did after opening my eyes this morning was to say “Modeh Ani.” I thanked Hashem for giving me back my soul. I acknowledged that my life is a gift — not a right.

And I went to daven. True, my mind wandered all over the place. But I went.

I try to go through much of the day in this way, thinking like this, until sleep overcomes me.

It may not be the classic approach to Elul, but at least I may have achieved some ahavat Hashem — love for Hashem — instead of just Fear of Elul.

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