In the lead up to Rosh Hashana, the weekly Torah readings are very pertinent. As we draw to the end of the weekly reading cycle, the book of Devarim – Moshe’s final words to his beloved nation – draw to a close. Last week, the reading of “Ki Tavo” contains the second “tochecha” – a long and bitter rebuke that speaks in great detail of the terrible calamities and curses that will befall the Jews if they stray from the Torah and the word of G-d. As awful as this warning must have been to a nation about to enter the promised land of Israel, how much more awful to us who, with the benefit of hindsight, know that over the last few thousand years it has all come true!
Does Moshe really want to leave such a bitter taste and fear in the hearts of the Jews? Perhaps in the context of Moshe’s imminent passing from the world, we can view his final messages as less of a detailed rebuke but rather as a big-picture perspective on the enduring role of the Jewish nation in society.
On the positive side, the blessings include that “… all the people of the earth will see that the name of G-d is proclaimed upon you, and they will revere you” (Devarim 28:10), but the curse says that we “will be a source of astonishment … a conversation piece among all the peoples” (Devarim 28:37). To be sure, Jews are talked about wherever we are, and disproportionately represented in so many fields. The mission to be a “light among the nations” is turned against us when the world constantly expects an unattainable standard of behaviour in spite of an existential threat, and where Jewish values are rejected and discarded in the name of progress. And yet sometimes we don’t even need the help of others in creating a Chillul Hashem as our community is marred by one public scandal after another.
The message of the tochecha is the importance of consequences in society. These days, the nanny state goes so far in abrogating the individual from responsibility to the extent that it’s primary role has become to protect people from themselves. The only fault seems to lie with the state, never the individual. Killers are found not guilty in court because they were abused as children. Advocates for special interest groups argue that if the state does not act, people will be “forced” into doing something terrible – whether it’s drug addicts “forced” into crime, or asylum seekers “forced” to take risky boat rides. We live in an age where consequences are being whittled away.
The Torah perspective rejects this entirely. What distinguishes humanity from the other creatures that inhabit the earth is the attribute of free choice. There is always a choice – perhaps a difficult or unpleasant one – but a choice nevertheless. And for every choice, there are consequences. A society without consequences is one on a slippery slope toward anarchy, the law of the jungle, and the erosion of basis values. This is one of the enduring truths Moshe seeks to impart to the Jewish nation, and a value that we must champion within society. If we follow the ways of the Torah, we will be revered for this; if not we will be derided.
Moshe continues with this week’s reading – Nitzavim – by overlaying this with a further view of society: “You are all standing here today before G-d: leaders, elders, officers … from the wood chopper to the water drawer” (Devarim 29:9-10). In these succinct verses, Moshe simultaneously points out our equality as people before G-d and the functional order needed within society. Society needs structure, and needs leaders just as much as it needs water drawers (and it needs water drawers as much as it needs leaders).
Different roles within the social order carry different circles of influence. While the humble wood chopper may not have as much influence than the elder, they are all held to account, and this is done in the context of their power and responsibility. The Ohr HaChaim explains that G-d does not demand more than is possible from each individual, but is not satisfied with less. Moshe himself understood this as well as anyone, having been held to the highest standard as a leader, and denied his dream of entering the Land of Israel for his flaws.
Moshe’s parting message to the Jewish nation, read every year before Rosh Hashana, is so very pertinent: there are no exceptions when it comes to accountability and consequences. The proximity of this message to Rosh Hashana, when G-d sits in judgement and holds us to account, by no means limits it to our relationship with G-d. Indeed, it is incongruous to maintain one standard for bein adam l’makom – how we engage with G-d, and another for bein adam l’chavero – how we engage with our fellow man. Enduring values like these apply to every facet of our lives. Everyone – from leaders to workers and all in between – is accountable, and everyone must bear the consequences of their actions.
Shana Tovah – a happy and sweet new year to all.