“Strive, Don’t Give Up.”

This portion Ki Tavo contains many treasures from which I would like to present a few central themes:

The first theme: the Israelites were invited to remember His Divine protection, at all times, going from a past that they didn’t know when it says that an Aramaean wanted to kill their ancestor, to overcoming the dangers that they lived through to finally reach the crowning moment of entering and possessing the land that they had been promised.  Of course, they were to remember to thank the Eternal for receiving the first fruit of the earth which they were to bring to the place that the Eternal chose (chapter 26). It is not so much because God needs fruit, but that He is pleased with the grateful hearts of those who give.

The second theme: it is written in chapter 27:1- 8 that the commandments must be carved onto large stones and placed where they could be seen by anyone entering the land. This custom was very common at the time of the Hammurabi Code when the laws of the land were written on trails on the roads where people travelled, in such a way that the displayed stones imparted that they were eternal laws (overcoming time with more enduring material). They became public law, displayed to any traveller on the road, in such a way that ignorance could not be an excuse. This same idea was applied to Israel so that travellers knew their laws and customs, that is to say, a way of socializing the Torah.

The third theme: the Levites had to proclaim the blessings and the apparent “curses” -since we can’t say that curses come from Heaven, but rather “are conductors for us to rectify our path” (27:15-28:69). On Mount Ebal, 6 tribes (Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulon, Dan, and Naftali) were placed to proclaim the curses, and on Mount Gerizim the other 6 tribes (Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin) to proclaim the blessings. The central theme was the acceptance by the people of these proclamations when they all said: Amen.

The fourth theme: Moshe reminded them of the miracles they had witnessed in the desert and ordered them to observe the mitzvot so that they would succeed in whatever their heart desired to undertake (29:1-8).

From these themes, I would like to focus on the following idea that has continuously come up during the week. It gives us a glimpse that we must strive and take actions that are aimed at being different than others.

During the week I have had certain situations that have been difficult for me to assimilate. Perhaps the one that made me think the most referred to an excellent service provider to our companies for about 15 years, whose projected “light”, I unfortunately learned was not so transparent. We were summoned to a meeting in our offices by the president of this company who obtained the results of their internal audits, and to our surprise, the person whom he admired and respected professionally had stolen thousands of dollars from his company, had mistreated his employees and had even stolen part of their salaries. I asked myself, how is it possible that this person could have reached this point in his life? He had a good job, and without judging him, I couldn’t believe it;  I  was shocked and saddened because he was someone I respected.

Here is another story: Many years ago, the president of a very large insurance corporation in my country and Central America, who used to live very close to our home, was fired after working in his industry for more than 30 – 40 years. This was a turning point in our relationship because as a result, they moved away from us.  A relative of ours who worked for this corporation told us that the reason for his dismissal was that over many years he had embezzled millions of dollars from the company. He did not go to jail due to an internal agreement so that the company would not go bankrupt, however, it was sad to discover he had embezzled and had also built a room for sexual encounters within the company, only discovered once he left.

All this reminded me of Rav. Shaul, who said in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Let anyone who thinks he is standing firm be careful that he does not fall.” I think that is exactly the problem that we all face in life; we come to believe that reaching the Promised Land is the goal, the end when it is only the beginning of the journey. If we look at it in practical terms, thinking to ourselves: “Oh, I know Biblical Judaism, I’ve already succeeded”…. No!  It is only the beginning of our journey. For this reason, the Eternal tells them that when they enter the land, possess it, inhabit it and begin to enjoy it, it is at this moment that the Words of the Torah must be placed more firmly within each person because it will become more subtle and easier to fall into deception.

In both cases that I have mentioned, they seemed to be very blessed people; they had obtained professional and family success, money, social and economic position, power, and influence, and they shone brighter than ever, but it was only vanity, not their essence. Honestly, they had my respect and admiration, but I ended up being very disappointed.

If we read our portion carefully, we see how effort is implied, in verse 26:1 “And when you have entered(personal effort) into the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you shall possess it (personal effort) and dwell (personal effort) in it”, 26:2 “you shall take (personal effort) of the first fruit of all the produce of the ground, which you gather (personal effort) from the land that the Eternal, your God, gives you; and you will put them (personal effort) in a basket, and you will go (personal effort) to the place that the Eternal, your God, will choose to make his name dwell there ( 26:3 ) “and you shall go(personal effort) to the (high) priest who will be in those days and say to him (personal effort): I declare(personal effort) today to the Eternal, your God, (and I express my gratitude to him) (personal effort) because I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our fathers that he would give us.” We continually see these verbs of action of personal effort reflected in each passage with examples such as: “You will speak aloud” (v. 5), “I bring the first fruit, you will prostrate yourself before the Eternal your God” (v. 10), ” you will rejoice” (v.11), “you will give” (v.12), “I did not eat and have done as you have commanded” (v.14), and so on, all using verbs that imply effort.

Reading the Haftarah portion, I also found implicit effort in Isaiah 60:1 “Arise and shine”. There is a local saying: “To God begging, but with the mallet giving.” How many people today want to get results without making an ounce of effort?  We have the choice of not doing (disobeying or inaction) –  a more modern trend nowadays – which will become a curse. People think “Don’t do, don’t try or be soft or be neutral”. It is the way; however, it is as if the Eternal told us: “I gave you feet so that you can walk; I gave you eyes so that you can see; I gave you two ears to hear; I gave you hands to build and do; I gave you a mouth to speak”. He has given us the body to fulfill His commandments. Unfortunately, society is again at the level expressed by Moshe in 29:3 to Israel after 40 years of being accompanied by the Divine Presence: “…. but to this day the Eternal has not given you an understanding heart, nor eyes that see, nor ears that hear.”

 The Hebrew word ברך barech means bless, and this is a state above a verb or a noun, a state of well-being and under His Divine protection and favor while the word אָרַר “arar”, curse means to live without favor and Divine protection, although the opposite may seem to be reflected. It is interesting that some scholars translate the word used in this portion as ” trap and bind.  I like this connotation because they remain “tied to the physical world, trapped in their vanities” even though they deceive the rest of us.

To the effort, we must add bravery and courage. Often making an effort implies being embarrassed, or not being taken into consideration by others, because it suggests we are behaving and acting differently. People may not be popular, especially the young, but you have to keep going. Effort is also an inside job because external actions like abstention, control, etc. are just the product of controlling the internal being. Proverbs Mishlei 23: 7 says, “For as one thinks in his heart, so is he.” Also if we do not add effort (a deliberate action) to our thoughts, we will not bear fruit, we will just have frustration.

After expanding a little on effort, blessings and curses, I would like to add something that I read this week about the word “oneg” עונג, pleasure and the word “nega” נֶגַע plague. Our sages say: “In the word oneg, the ayin ע is on the right and in the word “plague” (nega), it is on the left. Man has the power, say the chachamim, to convert oneg into nega by simply switching the ayin; that is, we have the freedom to choose between good and evil. On the other hand, the right, the right hand symbolizes action and strength, while the left symbolizes weakness. Man holds the power of transformation; he can perish before matter or fight and triumph over spirit. You can choose between good and evil, and it is in your hands to transform suffering into happiness, into oneg. According to the Torah, it is not enough to get rid of evil, it must be transformed into good; The immense abilities that man possesses must be at the service of God. If he obeys the voice of the Eternal, blessings will come upon him (verses 1-2); otherwise, he will have to endure the k’lallot (curses) written in this parashah (verses 15-68)” referring to Devarim chapter 28.

During the month of Elul, we traditionally read Psalms 27 Tehillim daily, “Of David – The LORD is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? God is the Strength of my life, of whom should I be afraid?” When we live in His Light, striving to obey without fearing the consequences of always doing things the right way, then we will live in a state of happiness, in a state of blessing.

My prayer for this Shabbat is that we strive to live the Commandments, so we will be light. We will shine the Light of the Eternal, we will live safely in peace, and we will pass from the state of nega to oneg. I encourage you to follow this advice from the Scriptures by the prophet Azariah in 2 Chronicles 15:7: “Therefore you be strong, stand firm and do not let your guard down, for your works shall be rewarded!”

Shabbat Shalom

Mauricio Quintero