Shabbat Shalom-With a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Eikev

We are getting near the time to prepare for the High Holy Days. This is a time when we are commanded to self assess. Tradition calls on us to look at the year that has passed and figure out where we need to do things differently in the coming year. The traditional liturgy will call on us to beat our chests saying “Al khaet shekhetanu – for the sin which I committed” as we list more than an alphabet of transgressions. 


This tradition has always troubled me. We are not a people who believe that humanity is innately evil. We do not believe that each person’s sin is my sin. Knowing that we have not been guilty of all these transgressions makes this confession disingenuous and diminishes the value of the matters for which we really must do t’shuvah (atonement).


We accept responsibility to help teach, heal, and learn from the world. Outside of this liturgy, our tradition puts a greater emphasis on the “I-Thou” work each of us must do, so that we can better pay attention to what is needed than on the atonement for someone else’s transgression. I cannot be responsible for someone else’s bad act, unless I facilitated it, exampled it, or passively looked the other way while I knew it was happening. I absolutely must be responsible for my own behaviors and for helping one injured and one who injures to a place of greater wholeness and vision. If the liturgy stopped with this, I would feel more comfortable with the liturgy … but it does not.


More difficult for me is the relative absence of perspective in the liturgy. We spend ten plus days (Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur) talking about all the stuff that we and others do wrong, need to rethink, fix, or repair.  Here is a radical thought: we are not bad people. We do a lot of great things, too! Yes, there is a lot of suffering in the world. Nature and people can provide devastation beyond belief, but both can also bring healing beyond expectation or hope.


If I have to beat my chest for someone else’s xenophobia, why can’t I also spend time celebrating that true heroism exists? If I have to commit to working on my own frailties, why isn’t there the same attention paid to making me appreciate the things I do that help people? If I am to hold myself accountable for someone else’s failings, why can’t I also spend this time being thankful for their blessings from which I have derived benefit?


This week’s Torah portion alludes to a potential reason for the conundrum. We normally read the text, “You shall consider in your heart, that, as a man chastens his son, so God your God chastens you (Deut. 8:5).” The verb is Y’yasaer (yod, yod, samekh, resh). Tradition will translate this word as chasten or punish. The word can also mean admonish or passionately teach, and the normal translations change the syntax of the sentence as written in the Torah. As written, it should read, “Know this intimately in your heart, in just the way a man y’yasaer his child, so God will m’yasrekah.” 


The Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught the most famous parental line, “This is going to hurt me more than it will you.” Thus, any chastening by God of man hurts God. With respect to an incredible scholar and giant of spirit, I can only respond, “Really?” 


Our tradition, in my opinion, has misread the text.


I am a parent, and yes, punishing a child is painful. I hate grounding a child from things they like, but they hate it far more than I could ever feel badly over it. I know why I am upset; often all they see is that an unreasonable adult went overboard WRONGLY. While they understand what they did, they also have the added embarrassment of having been caught acting badly. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways in which to teach a child. Despite what Proverbs teaches (“Spare the rod and spoil the child”) we know that our children learn from example. Learning a proper way to behave through example is … long term … a better lesson than being afraid of misbehaving. I cannot count the stories I have heard in counseling, of people growing up afraid of being abused or demeaned, who now had major issues with which to deal and from which to heal.


Y’yasaer – to admonish is to passionately teach. A loving parent has a child’s best interest at heart, and will do everything in his/her power to teach them to live ethically. If we read it in what I believe is a more appropriate context, the text should read, “Know this intimately in your heart, in just the way that a person admonishes his child, so God will admonish you.” Thus, while I cannot know what pain God feels or does not feel, I refuse to believe that the One who creates miracles can’t fathom a better way for us to learn than to hurt us first. Rather, this is an impassioned engagement with a God who wants us to grow and prosper. The pain we experience in Torah results from our own failures in faith, not God’s punishment.


Rosh Hashanah is a day of celebration; it is a new year. Yom Kippur is a day for renewal. If we go back to the earliest of commentaries, we learn of these realities. Over the last 2000 years, we have allowed our story and the perception about our history to be spiritually impoverished. The “Day of Awe” has become a day of anything but. 


Torah is intended to be ambiguous, allowing for a great many different meanings. That we somehow default to the negative cannot be healthy. Perhaps the notion … even our somewhat muted version … of “hell, fire, and damnation” is the reason that so many have found religion to be irrelevant. It may have been an effective tool to keep provincial and afraid people guilty and engaged.


I believe that the heart of a loving parent would always help us choose blessing and life. Maybe it is time to rethink the way we traditionally read our texts and observe our traditions. We cannot be faithful if we root our religion in fear. Where we are faithful, there is little room for fear.


Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Marc A. Kline