As we are completing 5775 and about to commence 5776, and we are reflecting on the past year and on our lives, a question arises: What is expected of us?
Our Torah this week (Parashat Ki Tavo 26:1-29:8) allows for an interesting answer. We read, “Now if you obey the Eternal your God to observe faithfully all the divine commandments…” (Deut. 28:1) On the surface, this looks like a rather parve, innocuous opening. However, the Midrassh, in Deuteronom Rabbah (Ki Tavo 7:4) offers a brilliant analogy and teaching.
Rabbi Simeon bar Halafta said: If one learns the words of the Torah and does not fulfil them, his punishment is more severe than that of him who has not learnt at all. It is like the case of a king who had a garden which he let out to two tenants, one of whom planted trees and cut them down, while the other neither planted any trees nor cut any down. With whom is the king angry? Surely with him who planted trees and cut them down. Likewise, whosoever learns the words of the Torah and does not fulfil them, his punishment is more severe than that of him who has never learnt at all…. Hence, the force of our verse, “…to observe faithfully all the divine commandments.”
Let’s overlook the issue of comparing punishments – it’s not important – and note the message of Rabbi Simeon. We may have higher expectation of those who are learned, and who are expected to behave more righteously. Yet, the Midrash and the parable make it eminently clear that anyone of us can plant and cut trees – anyone of us can develop our capabilities and utilize our learning. It is deplorable when one does not act on one’s learning and on the teachings of our Tradition. Such is not merely the precinct of the scholars and the sages; it is the birthright and the capacity of every one of us, and such is the rationale of the synagogue: to teach and engage and empower the Jew to participate in the Jewish enterprise of contributing to the betterment of the world.
…whosoever learns the words of the Torah and does not fulfil them, his punishment is more severe than that of him who has never learnt at all…
May the New Year be one of learning… and even more: may it be one of doing!
Rabbi Douglas Kohn