D'Var Torah -Parshat Ki Tavo
I consider myself to be a passionate person. I care deeply about many things. While this is a blessing in many ways, it also makes certain interactions and relationships difficult. Because I care so much, I am potentially more likely to oscillate between the extreme ends of my emotional spectrum. When things are going my way, it makes me very happy. But the slightest move in the wrong direction might make me scowl, not to mention how I feel if things are really going wrong.
A few years ago I was sitting in a lecture and my teacher began to pontificate about Israeli politics, which had nothing to do with our course as far as I was concerned. After a few minutes, my teacher began to draw connections from our lesson to a particular political point of view, one that I did not and still do not agree with. My teacher continued to make point after point and I just kept getting redder and redder in the face. Nobody around me was saying anything, but I felt too flustered to speak. So I did not. Several hours later I wrote an email to my teacher explaining what I thought was problematic about that particular lecture and why I disagreed with that particular perspective. It led to a constructive conversation and our relationship continues to be fruitful despite our many disagreements.
I told a few classmates of mine about how I felt and how I decided to deal with this problem. They asked, “why didn’t you say anything during class?” I responded, “because I was angry.” They pushed further, “if you were upset, then you should have said something.” And I answered by telling them that my father always told me, “when you get mad, you lose.” This may not be the winning strategy for everyone, but for me, it is key, and I am grateful to have been told this countless times growing up, so that it is a more instinctive part of me now.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Ki Tavo, we are told of the blessings we will receive if we do as God intends (and the curses should we wander astray). One familiar blessing, especially as we approach the new year, reads “And the LORD will make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if thou shalt hearken unto the commandments of the LORD thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them/ וּנְתָנְךָ יְהוָה לְרֹאשׁ, וְלֹא לְזָנָב, וְהָיִיתָ רַק לְמַעְלָה, וְלֹא תִהְיֶה לְמָטָּה: כִּי-תִשְׁמַע אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם--לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת.” The Ben Ish Hai (Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, 19th Century) connects this blessing to a teaching from the Talmud, “R. Jacob said: ‘The goat that goes forth leads the herd.’ So too a certain Galilean in one of his discourses before R. Hisda [said] that when the shepherd becomes angry with his flock he appoints for a leader one which is blind.” The Ben Ish Hai is drawing from the old teaching from Ecclesiates, “The wise man, his eyes are in his head/הֶחָכָם עֵינָיו בְּרֹאשׁוֹ.”
If we act from our gut, our place of emotions, there is a good possibility of us moving in the wrong direction. We may end up disappointing ourselves and potentially hurting others. We should try and do our best not to lose our heads. As we continue to march towards a New Year together, let us try and think, then breathe, then think again before we act. In these attempts we will ask God to make this year one that is only full of highs.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.