The shofar was sounded this morning (Friday, August 18) in synagogues that hold daily services. It will continue to be heard on weekday mornings until the penultimate day before Rosh Hashanah. In Sephardi synagogues, penitential prayers (selichot) will be recited every weekday beginning Sunday. (Ashkenazic Jews begin to recite selichot late in the evening after Shabbat on September 9.)
The Jewish month of Elul has begun, and so has the season of reflection and repentance that is meant to prepare us for the High Holy Days.
Reflection and repentance are involved processes. Reflection requires each of us to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of our souls.” Repentance requires us to decide what is wanting in our behavior and how to correct it. We need that accounting because we cannot seek forgiveness for sins we did not know we committed, or vow to improve behaviors of which we are not aware. We will just be mouthing empty words, accomplishing nothing regarding bettering ourselves.
Fortunately for us, there is an easily accessible guidebook to help us with that cheshbon hanefesh: the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah’s fifth book. It is currently being read on Shabbatot. I often call it “The Roadmap to Repentance for the 21st Century.” We just need to carefully — and with an open mind — study each of the eight weekly Torah readings leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and everything we need to know will be found in it.
Deuteronomy also provides us with a simple checklist of sorts in Parashat Ki Tavo, which will be read this year 14 days before Rosh Hashanah, on September 2.
A central feature of Ki Tavo is a short series of blessings and curses to be recited on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, once Israel has crossed over to the west bank of the Jordan River. Ki Tavo only presents the texts of the curses, 12 in all; presumably, the blessings mirror these 12. The litany is meant to be heard and responded to with Amen by the people who will be standing there, but it is also meant for us, the Jewish people of today.
These blessings and curses sum up what Judaism is really all about; they are the very things we need to be concerned with in our daily lives and need to integrate into our lives.
In other words, they are our checklist for the business of the High Holy Days. We need to consider how we lived up to each of the items contained in this checklist in 5783 and decide how we plan to live up to them going forward into 5784.
Moses chose the words in this litany carefully because they had to define what it means to be God’s holy nation. All but the first and last items in that litany are about our relations with our neighbors, friends, families, and even our enemies.
To understand, let us examine the curses and what they warn us against. With the exception of the first and last items, they are:
• Disrespecting our parents, which includes anyone who is parent-like to us, such as our teachers, and is also the basis for a whole body of family relations law because respect must be mutual;
• moving someone’s landmark, which is the basis for a whole body of law prohibiting dealing dishonestly in business;
• misleading a blind person, which is the basis for laws that, among other things, prohibit misleading people with false information;
• undermining the rights of society’s disadvantaged, which leads to laws that require us to act righteously and justly, fairly, equitably, and compassionately with everyone, whoever they may be;
• taking a bribe to cause harm, and even death, to another person, which also includes engaging in perjury and withholding information that could exonerate someone, among other things; and,
• engaging in incestuous relations and acts of bestiality, which also includes all manner of gross and boorish behavior. (This extends over three curses.)
The first and last items on Moses’ list are arguably the most critical, however. The first item sets the tone for what Moses wants to accomplish with this litany. The last one brings home a point Moses wants to make about communal responsibility.
The first item refers to secret idolatry. Outwardly, the person is a believer in God and God’s law. In secret, she or he does not believe in either.
In secret means that no one knows what we are doing. God knows, of course, but someone who does not believe in God does believe that no one is looking, so anything goes.
None of the sins listed here are possible without the sin of idolatry. It follows, then, that the person who commits antisocial crimes is an idolater in secret.
Idolatry is not just praying to idols. Idolatry in our world today means not fulfilling the role God assigned to us as the paradigms of proper behavior to the world at large. It means worshipping materialism and consumerism, all too often at the expense of our families, our neighbors, our community, and the world at large. When we put excessive focus on material possessions, wealth, and consumer goods, they often become the primary source of meaning and happiness in our lives. It also means turning our backs on poverty and injustice. It means supporting those who vow to cut our taxes by eliminating social welfare programs and vital health research.
The last item on the list is this: “Cursed is the one who does not stand up for the words of this Torah to fulfill them.”
Moses needs the people standing before him — and we who read his words today — to understand that when it comes to the People Israel, when it comes to us, there is no difference between the individual and the community. In Israel, in Judaism, “all Israel is responsible one for the other.” The individual is the community, and the community is the individual. When one of us breaks the covenant, we all break the covenant. When we all break the covenant, each of us individually breaks the covenant.
The community is the sum of its parts, yet each part is equal to the whole.
Moses needs us to understand something else, as well. The only real “Torah-true Jew” is one whose behavior to others is above reproach — and whose motive for such behavior is nothing more than that it is what God expects us to do.
As I have often written in the past, I do not believe in coincidence, at least not where the Torah is concerned. The idea of weekly Torah readings was still a long way off when Deuteronomy, Ki Tavo included, was written. Yet its messages appear in this place, at this time, year in and year out, just when we need to hear them. The selichot prayers and the sounding of the shofar each weekday morning are reminders that we need to begin concentrating on how we can live better lives and how we must live up to our responsibilities.
That is what the month of Elul is for. That is what that cheshbon hanefesh, that accounting of our souls, is for.
That is what the weekly Torah readings in Deuteronomy prepare us for and what Ki Tavo prepares us for in an even more compact form.
Just as Moses prepared this litany to remind those who would cross the Jordan of their true obligations to God, so the Torah was constructed to remind all successive generations of those same obligations (often with the aid of rituals) — and to remind us specifically at the one time in the year when we most need to be reminded.
These curses and the unstated blessings that presumably mirror them are what it means to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation — in our homes, in our own backyards, and on the world stage. When we do our job and do it properly, when we fulfill our mission, when we act as God wants us to act — to those nearest to us and those farthest away, to friend and foe alike — then, as Moses says to the people in Ki Tavo:
“And all the peoples of the earth will see that the Lord’s name is called on you…, and the Lord will put you at the head and not at the tail, and you will only be above, and you won’t be below — if you will listen to the commandments of the Lord, your God, that I command you today, to observe and to do.”
The prophet Isaiah says the same in God’s Name in the haftarah for Ki Tavo:
“And nations shall walk by your light, kings, by your shining radiance….I will make you a pride everlasting, a joy for age after age.”
Fulfilling our mission is our task. Failing to do the things that need doing in order to create the just, equitable, caring world God had in mind when God gave us that task is what we need to give serious thought to, especially as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I hope that all of us make these blessings and curses — and all of God’s words to us — a part of the very fibers of our being in 5784 and beyond.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.