18 Elul 5773 / August 23-24, 2013
In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, Moses begins to wrap up his final speech to the Israelites. The portion reads a lot like a scared straight narrative, as Moses basically lays out the most devastating curses imaginable (going so far as saying that the Israelites will end up eating their own children), which he says await them should they stray from God’s very specific instructions.
Needless to say, this doesn’t seem like a covenant I would necessarily want to be a part of if given the choice. There’s a lot of pressure… “If you do everything I say, I’ll give you blessings. But if not, I’ll curse you like woah.” Sounds like there’s just a bit of a power imbalance in the relationship (pimp – sex worker comes to mind), which admittedly is to be expected given that we’re dealing with a divine being traditionally understood as being all-powerful, and that is Biblically characterized as not only loving, but jealous and wrathful as well.
Given our leadership’s historical mechanism for motivating, it’s really not surprising to me that for millennia, one of the primary motivators as it relates to inspiring Jewish action has been guilt (or being threatened with punishment).
“You have to go to Hebrew school, son, because I had to suffer through it when I was your age, and if you don’t, you’re off the baseball team.”
“Why don’t you ever call me?” (says the Jewish mother while answering a telephone call from her daughter)
“How were Rosh Hashanah services this morning?” (says the father who knows full well that his child didn’t attend services)
The reality, however, is that for much of the Jewish community, fear of divine curses isn’t really a motivator these days. As a result, I’m prepared to argue that while there are some who are motivated by adherence to the Biblical covenant as expressed in this week’s portion and the blessings and curses it embraces, a path that focuses more on the joys and warmth of Judaism would be more welcoming and inviting for those for whom guilt and punishment are not motivating forces.
It’s time to start envisioning a Judaism so full of meaning, warmth and joy that people will line up to be a part of the communities we form, as oppose to attending with resentment, due to being pressured by external guilt or threats.
As we prepare to enter the High Holiday season in a couple of weeks, start taking stock of your internal motivations for being part of Jewish community. What inspires you? What about Judaism brings you joy? How have guilt and external pressures shaped your own experience of the Jewish community, and how can we break free of those artificial bonds? Think about the Jewish community you want to be a part of. Resolve to build it.