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Parashat 09/14/2011

Parashat Ki Tavo

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

HaShem will attach the plague to you until it consumes you…  HaShem will strike you with swelling lesions, with fever, with burning heat, with thirst …  HaShem will strike you with the boils of Egypt … of which you cannot be cured.  HaShem will strike you with madness and with blindness, and with confounding of the heart.  You will grope at noontime as a blind man gropes in the darkness, but you will not succeed on your way… Your sons and daughters will be given to another people – and your eyes will see and pine in vain for them all day long, but your hand will be powerless. (28:21-32)

We associate these words from the Tochachah / admonition, with some of the most terrible times in Jewish history – the destruction of the two Temples and the resulting exiles, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust.  I would like to suggest that even in our gilded ghettos of North America, we are suffering from some of these plagues right now.


My Hebrew name is Rafael, from the root “to heal,” so I make a point in my daily prayers of adding prayers for the sick.  It struck me the other day just how many of the people on my refuah list have either auto-immune diseases or environmentally-generated diseases, none of which are amenable to Western medical interventions.  One has Multiple Sclerosis; her neurologist has been giving her palliative care only for 25+ years.  Her brother has esophageal cancer from a lifetime of cigarette smoking.  He is currently receiving radiation and chemotherapy, all of which is making him sicker than the cancer.  My cousin’s husband has Parkinsonism; perhaps had we aggressively promoted research on stem-cell therapies there’d be better news for him, but politics trumped human suffering.  My son has Crohn’s disease, which is also an auto-immune condition.  He has found a natural program that is helping, but he is also taking a drug the long-term effects of which appear to be to increase one’s susceptibility to leukemia.  I have psoriasis, another auto-immune disease; the allopathic treatments I have tried have only made it worse.  Oy – in just one family!  What is going on!


There are additional plagues in the natural environment that appear to be on the upswing.  An earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, made many times worse by the presence, and failure, of a major nuclear power plant.  As I write this New Zealand is cleaning up after its second major earthquake of 2011.  The central US has had its worst year for tornado deaths and for flooding in decades; the floods in Manitoba this year will apparently exceed the “flood of the century” of 1997 in cost.  The rain is washing out crops and driving food prices through the roof.  I have been out of graduate school for too long to say with any certainty that this severe weather is directly related to global warming, and in any event there are those who would still argue that global warming is not anthropogenic.  What is clear is that our actions vis-à-vis nature are inappropriate, and nature appears to be reacting.


Perhaps all this is a message from HaShem that we are taking the wrong approach to life.  In some cases it is obvious where the problem lies.  Tobacco causes cancer.  Why is tobacco not a controlled substance?  Alcohol makes people drunk and disorderly (or worse).  Why is alcohol not a controlled substance?  The answer is obvious – there is too much money to be made, and those who are making the money are perfectly willing to let other people die rather than see their wealth diminish.  In some cases the causes are less clear – is there an increase in auto-immune disorders in the population, or is the evidence purely anecdotal?  Or is it a function of better reporting?  Or is it a function of increased exposure to environmental toxins – the welter of antibiotics in our air and water from being fed to animals in large quantities, or heavy metals from our industries, or herbicides and pesticides and all the myriad other poisons we generate for ourselves?  Or perhaps it’s from our highly-processed food?


Once upon a time it seems that Gd had to punish us by bringing great armies over long distances to cause physical destruction.  Nowadays it seems like all He has to do is stand back and let us punish ourselves!  But the message is the same: we have put material considerations as our first priority, and human and spiritual considerations way down the list.  Any kind of self-destructive behavior is condoned, as long as there is some short-term profit to be had.


A wise man once said “only a new seed will yield a new crop.”  My friend Marie commented, when the great financial crisis of 2008 broke, that the problem was not an economic problem, rather it was, and is, and has been from Biblical times, a spiritual crisis.  It is a crisis of individuals and communities that are so absorbed in the material outer crust of creation that they have cut themselves off from the infinite, inner value that supports that outer crust.  Once the support is lost, the collapse of the superstructure in inevitable.  We need to start planting a new seed of spiritual awareness, in ourselves, in our children, in our communities.  We need to take time out simply to be – to return to the spiritual wellsprings of our tradition, to pray with some intentionality and some intensity, to think long and hard about who we are and where we are going.  The upcoming Days of Awe would be a very good time to start.


Pirke Avot, Chapters 3-4

This week and next we will be “doubling up” on our study of Pirke Avot in order to finish the final cycle before Rosh HaShanah.

Mishnah 3:17

R. Akiva says: Jesting and levity accustom a person to lewdness.  Tradition is a [protective] fence around Torah; tithes are a fence for wealth; vows are a fence for abstinence; a fence for wisdom is silence.

R. Bulka explains: Every individual has instincts.  Those who are properly attuned will try to control these instincts.  The instinct to self-aggrandizement is well checked by sharing with the poor, by giving 10% … The final statement deals with a methodology which enhances the acquisition of that which one does not yet have, namely wisdom. … To acquire wisdom, one should be silent or contemplative in absorbing realities…

In just a few short phrases R. Akiva has given us the antidote to the terrible curses of our parashah.  We must rearrange our priorities to give primacy to our inner, silent, spiritual nature, and less importance to our outer, material nature.  This is the purpose of a “fence” – to set protective boundaries in our lives, so that our crude, animal nature doesn’t trample the delicate inner, spiritual nature that is at the basis of our existence – that is the image of Gd within us.  And the most important of those fences is silence, a deep, inner stillness in which we can truly find wisdom and enjoy all the blessings of heaven and earth.