Thursday, September 22, 2016

Parshat Ki Tavo

          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, continues Moses’s reminders to the Israelites to obey the commandments in order to be blessed. The Israelites are told that they are about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, and that they will have success in their early agriculture. In return, they must bring their first fruits, the finest of their labor and toil, to offer as sacrifices to God. They are commanded to serve God with joy and with a sincere heart. Maimonides comments on both of these commandments. On the first, he extrapolates that in a time with no Temple, when we no longer offer physical sacrifices to God, we must still do anything we do for the sake of God, with a sincere heart, in joy, and to our fullest. “When one builds a house of worship,” he says, “it should be more beautiful than their personal dwelling. When one feeds the homeless, it should be the best and sweetest of their table. When one clothes the naked, it should be the finest clothing.” On the second commandment, when the Torah says we should do these things with a joyful heart, Maimonides adds, “For even though you served God, you did not serve in joy, and that is the source for all your afflictions.”
          I think RaMBaM’s commentaries on this are linked, that we can serve God by serving each other, and we must continue to do both with gratitude and joy. But I think we can take away from these related comments two distinct lessons. The first is the most important and the most in our control. When giving tzedakah or doing community service, doing a small amount only when it is convenient does not accomplish much. Giving away torn and worn out clothing that is hardly wearable anymore doesn’t help those poor and the homeless that much. Feeding the hungry tasteless or low nutrient food isn’t real chesed. I’m not saying everyone should go broke giving tzedakah or quit their jobs to start cooking full time for the local soup kitchen. But, we should all be willing to set some time and money aside to share our blessings in a meaningful way. This is the way we can give modern day sacrifices and serve God in a modern context with no Temple or physical offerings.
          If we do this with gratitude for all that we have and with the knowledge that it is a righteous act, it can be a pleasant experience. If we appreciate the opportunity to meet new people in our community and to learn from someone whose life has been very different from ours, it’s a joyful and holy experience.  If you do so grudgingly and miserably, it will not be fun, you will not appreciate or be able to learn from the new people you meet, and you will be more likely to notice the money you are losing by giving tzedakah or the time you are spending not doing something you’d rather be doing. We can’t always help what mood we’re in at any given moment, but I think this is what Maimonides meant when he said serving God joylessly is the source of afflictions. A negative attitude can be cyclical, and dragging our feet to accomplish important and holy tasks will only make them harder and less pleasant.
          Don’t hesitate to serve God, to serve your community, to pray for a better world. Go through as much of life as you can with a positive attitude and finding the good in small things. And may doing so bring you peace, joy, and God’s blessing. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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