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Home » Animal Rights, Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo: Doing It G-d’s Way

Submitted by on August 30, 2009 – 3:30 amOne Comment | 1,916 views

Declaring Faith

As they entered the Holy Land our ancestors were instructed to inscribe the entire Torah on huge stones and display it for all to see. This was a declaration of faith in G-d. Entering the Holy Land was a new beginning that would require additional Divine protection and when we are in need of Divine blessing it is appropriate to invoke G-d’s name and proclaim our faith in Him.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah also marks a new beginning that requires Divine blessing. As the new year approaches we beseech G-d to renew the past year’s blessings and suspend its calamities and failures. As our ancestors did when they were in need we too bolster our faith by devoting the month of Elul, the last month of the year, to somber reflection on the state of our relationship with G-d.

Pledging Allegiance

Our ancestors did not only declare their faith they also inscribed and displayed the entire Torah thus proclaiming their fidelity to G-d’s commandments. Declaring our faith is not sufficient; to secure Divine blessing it is incumbent on us to pledge allegiance to G-d. This is aptly illustrated by King Saul’s error.

Through the prophet Samuel, G-d instructed King Saul to annihilate the entire tribe of Amalek and its livestock. When Saul spared the livestock, intending to use them instead as gratitude offerings to G-d, for his spectacular victory, over Amalek, G-d told Samuel, “I regret that I have appointed Saul as king.” Samuel saw that Saul had forfeited his Divine blessing and he rebuked him saying, “Obedience is greater than an offering.” (1)

On the face of it Saul’s idea made sense; wanton slaughter of animals seems wasteful when they could serve instead as gratitude offerings to G-d. Would G-d not be glorified through the offering? The answer is no. G-d is glorified when we respect His wishes; not when we trade in His wish for a seemingly better idea. King Saul had ample faith in G-d, but he forfeited his blessing because he failed to obey G-d.

We cannot afford to repeat that mistake. For example driving to the Synagogue to attend Shabbat services might make for a more meaningful Shabbat experience than staying at home. Yet the objective of Shabbat is not a day of meaningful rest; it is attachment to G-d and the only way to connect with G-d is to do it His way. We cannot do as Saul did and pledge only our faith; we must also pledge our fidelity.

This is why we chant Psalm 27 twice daily during the month of Elul. This Psalm is a pledge of allegiance; it’s opening verse, “G-d is my light and my assistance; whom shall I fear? G-d is the strength of my life; whom shall I dread?” outlines a three step program that strengthens our bond with G-d.

Step One: G-d Is My Light

It is often difficult to discern right from wrong. When we are confronted by two options, each of which seems as good as the next, how can we know which is better? Say for example two of your neighbors are in need of charity and you can afford to provide for only one. Who takes priority? Both choices seem proper; which is G-d’s wish?

The first step is to acknowledge that “G-d is our light.” On questions of moral ambiguity we don’t have to grope in the dark for the torah illuminates our path by helping us discern right from wrong.doing it G-d's way - innerstream

Whether it is Saul’s dilemma about slaughtering livestock or our dilemma about allocating charitable funds the right answer is always the one provided by G-d. In the case of charity the Torah presents a hierarchy of priorities that places A Kohen ahead of a Levite and a Levite ahead of an Israelite, unless the latter is a greater Torah Scholar than the former. (2)This might be counter intuitive; if it were left to us we might have chosen differently, but we must remember that our objective is fidelity to G-d rather than to our own understanding. Once we know the Torah’s ruling we know what we are required to do. We might not understand it at first glance, but we can trust G-d to know right from wrong.

Step Two: G-d Is My Assistance

Knowing right from wrong is only half the battle. Doing the right thing despite our inclination to the contrary is more difficult. At times we know precisely which is right and which is wrong. No one needs to tell us that skipping our daughter’s play to stay late at the office, skipping Shabbat services to enjoy a lazy day at home, skipping an anniversary dinner to play golf with friends and experimenting with the forbidden when no one is watching are all wrong choices. Yet we often succumb to the allure of the forbidden. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that our urge to sin wages an aggressive war against us and without G-d’s assistance it would overcome us every day. (3)

When we chant Psalm 27 we pray for the fortitude to follow the right path despite the obstacles. “G-d is my assistance,” we proclaim and pray for the inspiration to overcome the allure of the other path. We recognize that the odds are stacked against us. Our environment is not conducive to holiness and our inner inclination wages war against us every day. Yet, when “G-d is my assistance, whom shall I fear?” With G-d at my side I know I can overcome.

Step Three: The Strength Of My Life

If you are like me, you have let G-d down at least once during the course of the year past. Knowing how fickle is our commitment it is easy to fall prey to the fog of insecurity, self doubt and melancholy. This is where the resilience of the human spirit comes in.

No matter how low we have fallen our buoyant spirit can claw its way back to the top. All we need is faith in G-d and confidence in our ability to recover. G-d loves us despite our failures; He knows our weaknesses; after all, He made them. But when we fall He expects us to pick ourselves up and mount a return. He expects it because He knows we can do it; He knows because He made us. Plunging into the depths of depression and the morass of despair weakens life. G-d expects more of us; “He is the strength of our life.”

“G-d is the strength of my life, whom shall I dread?” If G-d provides my strength why should I dread my failures? I will confront them and claw my way back into G-d’s book of life.

May we have the wisdom to choose G-d as our light, the courage to follow the path that He illuminates and the merit to be inscribed in the book of life. (5)

Questions For Further Discussion

Should we obey G-d even when we don’t understand His reasons?
Should we seek to understand or should we be be satisfied with obedience?
Which is more important, obedience or understanding?

Footnotes

  1. Samuel I, chapter 15.
  2. Maimonides, Laws of gifts to the poor, 8: 18.
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah: 52a.
  4. Adapted from Likiutei Sichos, v IX, pp 170 – 174. See also p. 314 and 357.
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One Comment »

  • Anonymous says:

    In regards to understanding versus obediance you questions are very thought provoking.
    1. Should we obey G-d's commandments even if we do not understand the reason why?
    2. Should we seek to understand, or just be satisfied with obediance?
    3. Which is more important understanding or obediance?
    Rabbi Goldberg at Temple Judea last Yom Kippur make the radical statement to our congregation that it is not necessary to believe in G-d to be a good Jew, as long as our actions are as if we do. The answer to the first question is in fact the entire basis for Judaim as expounded by Rabbi Hillel. He said, “the essence of Torah is to treat every other person as we would like to be treated ourselves. It is noteworthy that he did not say to only treat nice people well, or to know and understand the person were are relating to, rather Judaism is a religion of action first. It is not important that we always understand G-d's reasons, for “his ways and reasons are not our ways and reasons”. Just as a child should obey his parent, we should obey G-d who is our father, and the “parent” of the entire universe. He created everything with His will and wisdom, and as lowly sentient beings we must respect Him, and his wishes. He created us to have a relationship with us, (I can discuss at another time that perhaps we were created because G-d was lonely?), and has given the Torah as a guide to how such a relationship should operate. As children we obey our parents out of respect, love, and fear, and as we grow into adults with wisdom and understanding, we can then begin to understand the reasons for the things they commanded us to do. In a similar manner, we are first given Mitzvot and commandments, and as we mature as Jews, and scholars begin to gain an understanding as to the hidden meaning of many things. Some commandments we cannot ever understand, such as the Red Heifer, and must accept with faith that by following such an order we will make G-d happy. There is also another part of question one that relates to each individual's level of holiness, scholarship, knowlege and innate intelligence. Rabbi Nachman told a story about a boy with a flute who could not read Hebrew or understand anything about the service. When he attended synagoge, the only thing he could do was blow his flute! This simple music elevated and carried the prayers of the entire room upwards to higher levels of holiness. I like to say that everyone is a candle, and that some people's flames are stronger, and others burn less bright. We do not all understand at the same level, but by doing, we all give oil to flame, which elevates our soul, and that of the entire Jewish people. In the final analysis obediance must arise from the love and fear of G-d in our hearts, which is near to us, and easy to do. This love and fear is developed through our obediance, not our understanding.
    2. G-d does not want robots, but thinking people. He may very well have picked the Jewish people as His nation of priests because we are always questioning things. As long as a question to our King is respectful, there is no reason we cannot to ask. We first however must have faith that everything we are asked to do is for the good, and to elevate the fallen sparks of this world. We must join Chochma with Binai to bring our consciousness from the material world, into the spiritual plane.
    3. Judaism has always been about doing. Making the world a holy place where G-d may dwell is the purpose of our obediance. A king expects obediance from his subjects, and that obediance creates a relationship from which mutual love and understanding developes. Only by obeying and seeing the fruits of our labor, do we eventually understand our purpose on this world. We must first plant the seed, and then watch as a plant grows. We do not know looking at a seed what will spring from it. Only by the planting/obeying, and the watering/mitzvot, does the seed grow into something we can recognize and undersand.
    In conclusion we obey out of respect, fear and love. We understand when our doing strengthens our relationship with Hashem, and we see the good in the world that our obediance creates. When we unite Binah with Chochmah we embrace the Tree of Life and live. When our need to know how and why in this material world interferes with our service to G-d, we embrace the Tree of Knowlege/Good and Evil, and die.
    I thank you for your illuminating discourse, and hope my poor attempt at a reply to your retorical questions is not too far off in left field.
    Happy and Healthy New Year,
    Dr. Harry Hamburger

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