D’var Torah: Eli Williams (Ki Tavo)

In Ki Tavo, God instructs Moses to speak to all of the Israelites about laws, curses and blessings that could affect one person or a group of people. This is the second time these laws are written in the Torah. The instructions also appear in Leviticus. At that point in the Torah they are presented by God but in this parsha, Moses is saying them.

When reading through the parsha, one of the main things that I noticed was that when a person does good, even the smallest things will benefit others.

Consequences always seem to be the specific reverse of the reward. An example in the parsha is that if a person follows the rules that God commands, “blessed is your household, family, and your kneading bowl. But if you don’t follow these rules, cursed is your household, family, and your kneading bowl”

Others will benefit or be punished depending on your actions.

Which means that an entire community has to do well for everyone in it to flourish.

What I also noticed is that there seems to be no margin for error. One mistake is all it takes for you, and all the people around you to be cursed, or punished. In earlier parts of the Torah, we were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them– but in this parsha, we are told that if you make the smallest mistake, you could have a big punishment.

A famous mistake that we learned from is when Moshe hit the rock. We learned from that incident that anger isn’t productive, but also that actions have consequences. Back then, the consequences were not laid out like they are in this parsha, but Moshe still got punished by not being able to go to the promised land. 

Now, as they are about to enter the promised land, they are given a set of rules to help encourage a sense of community– because a community knows that they are not just dependent on themselves, but also dependent on each other. 

I wondered if this system was fair? This means that a good person related to a bad person could have a negative effect on the good person– but also vice versa. But I still liked the idea that we are all responsible for each other.

I think it’s a good idea today if we take responsibility for each other’s behavior.  If one person doesn’t follow the rules about pollution everyone can suffer. In my own life, at school and at camp, it works better if we share responsibility for our community. Everybody suffers if someone gets something taken away.  In sports, if one player on your team gets a penalty, your entire team will not be able to play as well as it did. When I was in third grade, our class had a system where to determine the amount of free time we had, we had letters written out that spelled F R E E T I M E. Each letter was 2 minutes. Every time we did something good, we got an extra letter. Every time we did something bad, we got a letter taken away. A couple kids including me complained that this system was unfair; the teacher responded that in order to have a good time, everyone must also be good. 

That doesn’t mean that everything is always fair.  It seems like some people don’t follow rules and still have lots of good things happen to them, and the reverse.  There are people who do good and have bad things happen to them.

But maybe we don’t understand the rewards and punishments right away. In the mishna it says: “against the loss that fulfilling a mitzvah may entail, reckon it’s reward.” This means that when doing a mitzvah, it may seem as a loss or waste of time. But later, you will see that it is worth it, not just because of the blessings that may follow, but also that you will feel good about yourselves. But it continues: “and against the benefit a transgression or a sin may bring, reckon the loss it involves.” This means that when sinning, you get a short glimpse of joy, but then feel bad or get cursed. But it seems today that wrong doers only care about the glimpse of joy and not the punishment — if there is one.

But the blessings for mitzvot and the curses for sinning are not supposed to be the only thing making you do the right thing. The feeling of doing good and the feeling of doing bad is also there to encourage it.

This is what I learned from parshat Ki Tavo.  If we had no free will, we would have no need to have laws. We would just do as we were told, which would be really bad and our lives have to have meaning. So having free will gives our life meaning. And clearly, after wandering in the desert for 40 years, we needed a lot more than just the 10 commandments.  This parsha showed just how many. rules we needed. And laws are important, not just because they make you do the correct things but because they guide you in your interactions with others. Since we are all part of a global community, we must do good. 

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