The positive and the negative
We cannot help but think of the kinds of choices we read of in this parshah as a timely lesson — a chance to re-examine our choices only a few short weeks before the High Holidays.
This week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, opens with the ritual of bikurim, the giving of the first fruits of the season’s harvest. This practice of offering a portion of our produce is a way of giving thanks, but also as an acknowledgement of our history and the many factors, good and bad, planned and unplanned, that led to this place and time.
As if to reinforce these vicissitudes in life, the following Chapters 27 and 28 open with Moses charging the people of Israel to obey the instructions in the Torah, to reap the blessings if so or suffer the consequences if not. This stark black and white, either/or thinking, is not the kind of choice we care to make. If life is full of possibilities, it’s unfortunate but all too often that we are faced with few choices or even none at all.
It’s not uncommon that Jewish thought and ideas are broken into opposite categories, like two sides of a coin. Such as the 613 mitzvot, which are commonly divided into positive commandments and negative commandments, 248 positive commandments “to do” something and 365 to refrain from doing. Also, as in Kohelet, there’s a time to do something and another time to refrain from doing.
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We cannot help but think of the kinds of choices we read of in this parshah as a very timely lesson — a chance to re-examine our choices now only a few short weeks before the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Like the opening chapter of the Ki Tavo, we start with positives — a new month, a new year. As time goes on and we approach Yom Kippur, our questions and self-doubts grow. With this in mind, it’s entirely fitting the Hebrew phrase for this period and for the holidays is yamim noraim, the Days of Awe. Like the English word awesome, norah can mean either a great positive or a frightening power.
In some ways, those decisions with few or no possibilities may be the hardest to come to grips with. One goes round and round, and even if it’s finally decided and seemingly finished, it’s difficult to live with the decision and let the matter rest. Just as we are to forgive others this time of year, we need to acknowledge making the best decision we can with matters at hand.
As they crossed the river Jordan, the Israelites were to erect a stone written with words of Torah to guide them and mark the border into a new land. So too may we enter into the High Holidays with guidance and hope for a good and sweet year. PJC
Cantor Henry Shapiro is the spiritual leader at Parkway Jewish Center. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association. Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.