Parashat Ki Tavo /
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
(I am pleased to share this devar Torah from September 2015, which also coincided with the eve of Selichot. In it, I encourage us to consider, as the rabbis did, what motivates us to change.)
This Saturday night is Selichot, a service that punctuates the coming of the Days of Awe in just over a week. The Selichot service represents a sort of “greatest hits” of the High Holy Days, with penitential hymns and familiar melodies from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Selichot, which means roughly “apologies” or asking forgiveness for our wrongdoings, is intended to help with the process of teshuva, repentance or, literally, “turning;” we are to contemplate how we can become the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.
Part of doing teshuva involves asking ourselves why we do the things we do and why we don’t do the things we don’t do. Why do we strive to avoid negative behaviors? We do strive to do only good?
These are questions that are addressed in a way in this week’s Torah reading. In Ki Tavo our ancestors are told that as soon as they enter Canaan, they are to undergo a ritual to remind them of the blessings that follow from obeying God’s mitzvot, commandments, and the curses that will ensue should Israel go astray by neglecting the mitzvot and going after foreign gods.
In his article Between Fear and Awe, my colleague Rabbi Shai Held, Co-Founder and Chair in Jewish Thought of Mechon Hadar, discusses two forces that prevent us from falling into disfavor with God, forces that help avert the terrible curses that await us if we disobey God’s commands. The forces are fear and awe, both of which are reasonable translations of yirah which the Torah commands us to feel. Rabbi Held shares the debate between rabbis across generations whether it is preferable to obey God out of fear of punishment or whether obedience should be rooted in awe and reverence for God’s self.
At one point, Rabbi Held notes that the word todah has a similar dual meaning as yirah. Today can be at once thankfulness for our bounty and praise for the One who Gives. In reality, though, the connection between todah and yirah is more than comparative. They are opposite sides of the same coin. We may be motivated to walk in God’s ways as much by todah, with all it connotes, as we are by yirah with all its connotations. Is it not the case that we avoid bad behaviors and exhibit good ones because sometimes we look forward to the benefits that come with making certain choices? Is it also not the case that sometimes we make choices out of respect and gratitude for God or, on a human level, for another person?
I encourage us to examine why we do what we do (or don’t) as we undergo a close examination of our souls during this penitential season. Perhaps by seeing where we are on this grid of fear<>awe/thankfulness<>gratitude we will be able to do teshuva in a way that will lead us on the right path not only for the coming year but well into the future.