KI TAVO 5772
There is a very dramatic scene in today’s Torah reading (Deut. 27:11-26). After 40 years of traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land the Children of Israel are at the banks of the Jordan River ready to enter. Moses wants this to be an indelible memory for them so he creates this elaborate ceremony. Once they have crossed over the Jordan, 6 tribes—Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin—will stand on Mt. Gerizim, and 6 tribes—Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan and Naftali—will stand on Mt. Eyval. There will be some Levites in the valley between proclaiming a list of blessings toward Mt. Gerizim and all the people would respond, “Amen!” And then the Levites would turn to Mt. Eyval and pronounce the curses and then again all the people would respond, “Amen!”
My colleague Rabbi Jack Reimer asks: I imagine that the 6 tribes who were chosen to receive the blessings must have felt very proud and very special, but how would you feel if Moses had chosen you to be on Mt. Eyval toward which the Levites proclaimed the curses? One can picture the people from the tribes on Mt. Eyval saying to themselves, “What did we do wrong that he chose my tribe for this task?” They must have felt rejected and unworthy.
Don’t we fall prey to this as well? Let me explain: if a teacher tells a student that she can’t sing, what happens? In almost every case, the child grows up believing that she can’t sing. If a teacher divides his class into 2 groups—those whom he thinks are smart and have potential and those whom he believes are slow learners who will not achieve much, what happens? In almost every case, even if the teacher does not tell the class in words how she feels about them, they somehow get the message. Research has shown that students can tell which ones the teacher thinks are smart and which ones the teacher thinks are not, and, almost always, the students will live up to—or down to—the teacher’s expectations.
In one research experiment a teacher was given a role book at the beginning of the school year. And beside each name, the teacher was told, the previous teacher had written a star before the names of the good students and an x before the names of the poor students. And sure enough, at the end of the year, the marks that the students got in this class corresponded almost exactly to the stars and the x’s in her role book. The stars and the x’s, however, were chosen by random selection! That’s how powerfully the expectations that others have of us can affect us.
I have seen the damage that judging people can have on them. I remember the last rehearsal with a Bat Mitzvah girl some years ago. She was so nervous she messed up completely—mispronouncing so many words and confusing the melodies. On the day of the Bat Mitzvah, however, she was perfect. I walked over after the service, and told her and her mother, who was standing next to her, how wonderfully she had done. And I still remember what the mother said to me in response to my compliments. She said, “Dumb luck!” And when she said that, I could see the face of her daughter go blank with tears welling up in her eyes. With just those 2 words, this mother had succeeded in crushing the spirit of her daughter on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life. The child dropped out of Religious School after the Bat Mitzvah and I wasn’t surprized.
Once I went to pay a shiva call on a mother who had lost her son—a 55-year-old man. The woman was weeping and wailing and berating her fate. And she said to me: “Now that he is gone, I have nothing.” And I looked at her, and I looked at her remaining son who was sitting next to her, and I wondered how he felt hearing his mother say that. Was he a nothing? I can only imagine how rejected he must have felt!
In the Book of Ruth, Naomi seems to have done the same thing. Ruth chooses to go back to the land of Canaan with her mother-in-law Naomi. That was not an easy thing for her to do. She was a Moabite Princess. It meant leaving her land, her language, her family—everything she had and was. And yet, when they get to Bethlehem the women of the town of come out to greet them, and she says: “Don’t call me Naomi (sweetness) anymore; call me Mara (bitterness), for Gd has dealt harshly with me. I went out full and I come back empty”.
Ruth was standing next to her when she said that. Can you imagine how she must have felt? What was she, chopped liver—a nobody? How could Naomi say that with Ruth was standing right next to her? Naomi’s self-pity, however, only lasted a little while. Soon she got over it and got busy caring for Ruth, worrying about Ruth, and arranging a shiduch for Ruth.
The scene in our Torah portion, however, is different. All the people had to answer “Amen!” to both the blessings and the curses. Although the Levites faced 6 tribes while reciting the blessings and the other 6 tribe the curses, all the people answered together. Some tribes had to be chosen to be on Mt. Gerizim and some tribes had to be chosen to be on Mt. Eyval, otherwise the drama of the scene would not have worked. But all the tribes said, “Amen!” to both the blessings and the curses. So no tribe was singled out for blessings or curses.
Why do I tell you this today? Because the High Holy Days are just around the corner and when we look back on our behavior this past year, this is a failing most of us must be careful about. A boss who tells his employees many times a day that they are botching the job and that they’re doing poor work will end up with demoralized employees who botch the job and who do poor work. A parent who tells a child every day that he/she is a slow learner will end up with a demoralized child who is a slow learner. A parent who tells a child he/she will never amount to anything will have a child that never amounts to anything.
In just a few weeks, we will all gather here in the sanctuary for Kol Nidre. After it’s recited the congregation calls out in one voice: Slach na l’avon ha-am haze k’godel chasdecha, v’ka-asher nasata l’am hazeh mimitzrayim v’ad heyna, “Gd, please forgive the sin of this people in Your great mercy, as You have done from the day we left Egypt until today.”
That verse comes from a passage in the Torah where Moses pleads with Gd to forgive the people for a dreadful sin that they have committed. What was that sin? It was not the sin of the golden calf. Gd doesn’t have such a fragile ego that He couldn’t handle the sin of His people worshipping another god. What was the sin that Gd forgave us for that is worth mentioning as an example of God’s loving-kindness at the holiest moment of the holiest night of the year?
It was the sin of the spies. 10 heads of tribes came back from spying out the Holy Land and told the people that although the land that Gd had chosen for them was a good land, a fertile land, a beautiful land…the people who lived there were giants and there was no way that they could ever hope to conquer it. Why is that a sin worse than the sin of the golden calf? Why is that the sin that we make mention of, as a token of Gd’s goodness, on Kol Nidre night?
Because it’s not the task of a leader to tell people: “You can’t do it!” They already fear that they can’t do it. They feel weak and frightened and insecure and unable. The task of a leader is to tell his people: “You can do it!” even though you are afraid, even though you feel weak and insecure and frightened. You can do it—with the help of Gd.
Most of us have been very frustrated that we have not been able to grow our congregation and find a suitable home for it over the past several years. There has been one thing after another blocking our way—the most recent, obviously, is the difficult economy. It’s easy to hear voices saying, “You can’t do it.” Well I as your rabbi am here to tell you that “You can do it! And that we will do it!” It may not now look like there is a way, but Gd will help us—if we don’t give up—and make a way.
Each and every one of us is a leader of sorts, whether it be in our families or friends, in our work or in our synagogue. As the High Holy Days approach, let’s learn from the dramatic ceremony the Jewish people had as they entered the Holy Land…how much power our words have—to hurt or to bless, to put down or to raise up, to demolish a fragile ego or to strengthen and give confidence. Let’s learn not to think too highly of ourselves when we are complimented. And let’s learn not to feel rejected if we are criticized. May Gd help us in this task and let us all answer as the Chilren of Israel did on the mountains of Gerizim and Eyval, “Amen!”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis