In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses tells us, “When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle it, you shall take some of the first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish Divine name” (Deuteronomy 26:1-2).
The Torah, and especially Deuteronomy, is filled with the ideas of sacrifice and offerings. For example, as a way of showing thanks for their Redemption, the Israelites were to tithe themselves ten percent of their crops and give them to the Levites, the stranger in their midst, the orphan and the widow. It was more than a collective sense of responsibility to take care of those who were most vulnerable, it was also a way of showing gratitude.
Deuteronomy is in stark contrast to much of what we see in society today. Instead of heeding the words of JFK’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” we nowadays instead tend to focus on the opposite.
Concepts like “we,” “us,” and “ours” have been replaced by “I,” “me,” and “mine.” This is part of the reason why I think religion, especially the more liberal traditions (in observance not necessarily in political belief), have fallen by the wayside. It is also related to the rise in the Gospel of Prosperity. The Gospel of Prosperity is the belief that good health and material rewards are a direct result of faith, donations, and positive action. Or to put it more succinctly, I have succeeded because God wants me to succeed because I am a good person.
Concepts like humility and humbleness are not a particularly valued part of today’s vernacular. We like showmanship. We like to be entertained. We want things that make us feel good because we are important.
This is why passages like those in Ki Tavo are so important. In a way they help to counteract, even to a limited degree the emphasis on self. Judaism has always placed a core focus on the community and our role within it.
We should give, not to feel better, but as a token of appreciation. We should help others, not to be recognized, but because it is a core part of the mitzvah to repair the world.
Yes we are important. We are important because we can stand for ideas and principles that can have a positive impact on the world. We are important because we can be agents of change.
So on this Shabbat of Ki Tavo, let us do and not simply be. Let us be asking ourselves not what Judaism can do for us, but what our tradition can inspire us to do. Let us act with a sense of gratefulness and humility, so that our actions can have a positive impact.
As Ki Tavo teaches, generosity should start with a feeling of gratefulness. We are grateful to be alive. We are grateful to have loving friends and family in our lives. Yes, our lives are not perfect. Yes, we are not perfect. Yes, many of us have suffered trials, hardships and heartbreak. But we are nonetheless grateful. So let us, on this Shabbat, be compelled to act and to give, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the Jewish thing to do.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff