This week marks for my family the beginning of schools at Valley Beth Shalom. In normal years, I would spring out of bed and rush to the front gate of campus to spend the next two hours greeting teachers, administrators, parents, and students as hundreds of people returned to campus. This year, on my early morning walk, the campus seemed much quieter as most of the students who began today did so from home. I’m very proud of the hard work our educational staff have put in to envision different models for our students and families. They have done incredible work under impossible conditions to ensure the safety of the students and teachers and the sanctity of learning.
I know it’s hard to feel the fresh feeling that comes on this day when most of our school families are still home, six months into this pandemic. Yet it’s still there, that “newish” feeling, with friends posting online photos of children smiling with their excited faces. The feeling is still there with teachers energized to teach again. The feeling is there as kids settle in to try to learn. But the feeling is different. It’s less frenetic than a jammed parking lot and hundreds coming and going, and it’s more uncertain – fragile even – as we just don’t know when the routine will change again. As I talked to a few congregants last week, many are not sure they gave themselves the permission to feel something is new.
For some today is not new enough. The Zoom routine might be different with different faces on the other end of the screen and different timing, but it’s still Zoom. And instead of balancing work with childcare and vacation, now parents are balancing work with childcare and school.
For some, today is too new. Everything that is new carries with it an element of uncertainty and in this environment, uncertainty can be overwhelming. The last six months have taught us that nothing is truly unshakable, and when we embark on another year of learning, the anxiety that brings can also be crippling. All of these complex feelings about starting something new are part of what it means to be alive. They are all responses to a future that is more unclear and more uncertain than ever.
To me, the future is always a question. We all have a future, but we do not know what it is or how our story will end. Which means, by its very nature, the idea of the future always ends in a question mark. Even the famous prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which imagines God standing over a book writing down our names and fates, belies the question of the future, “Who will live and who will die? … Who will be raised up and who will be brought low?” More prosaically, the Broadway show Hamilton, echoes the ancient poetry when the chorus sings, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Whether on the stage or the bima, the future is a question, and what it asks of us is the most important question of all – knowing that we don’t know the future, how do we want to live?
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses understands the weight of the future and how it interrogates our lives. Against the uncertainty of what is to come, Moses shares a vision of prosperity that links the distant past to the responsibility to prophecy. “When you enter the land the LORD has given you as a heritage and settle in it. You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to Establish the Holy Name.” (Deut. 26:1-2) Moses’ vision is one of peace, wholeness, and social responsibility. He imagines a farmer, long settled in the land with a family, a heritage and a posterity sharing his fruits as a symbol of thanks to God for his well being. The farmer recites the now famous passage, “My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut 26:5), now recited on the evening of Passover Seder as a model of collapsing our past into our present like an accordion, squeezing everything together to produce music.
To achieve Moses’ vision – one where everything feels okay and the future is not so scary – you have to cross a threshold between here and there. In the following chapter, Moses and the elders bring the people together once again, instructing them that to find the future they wish for, they have to answer the question the future is asking of them. Moses instructs the people that once they have crossed over the Jordan river and before they settle into the land, the nation shall station themselves upon two mountains facing each other. (Deut. 27:11-14). The Levites will then proclaim both curses and blessings upon the community. With horrific eloquence, curse is heaped upon curse, focusing the Divine wrath on those that insult the deaf, disobey their parents, who kill in secret, those that build idols to foreign Gods. (Deut. 27:15-26; 28:15-19) The vivid imagery and repetition of the verse strike hard against the soul. So savage are these curses, that in services when they are read liturgically, they must be read in a whisper.
The logic of the curse is brutally simple – in biblical times, if you do not follow God’s ways as outlined in the Torah, you will be cursed. Underlying this logic, though, is an even more startling and radical one – your future, teaches Moses, is your responsibility. Your life is not given over to fate or destiny. There are no Gods who treat you as their plaything and no demonic forces tempting you into damnation. Your life is what you craft, and your future is your choice to make. If you create a world where cynicism, degradation, and brutality are normalized, then your world will look cynical, degraded, and brutal. If you answer the question of the future with curses, then cursed, as the Torah says, “shall be your city…cursed shall be your progeny…cursed shall you be in your coming and cursed shall you be in your going.” (Deut. 28:19)
As brutal and violent as that sounds, the same logic holds true for the sweetness of blessing. Embedded among the curses, nestled between the takedowns is a similar litany of blessings. Here, Moses outlines what a blessed answer to the question of the future looks like. If you are kind and follow the commandments, “Blessed will you be in your city and in your country. Blessed will be your progeny…Blessed will be your basket and kneading bowl. Blessed are you in your coming and blessed are you in your going.” (Deut. 28:1-6) If you answer the future with kindness, and redemptive optimism, then you will create a world where goodness and kindness reign supreme over avarice and greed.
The prosperity that Moses envisioned is just on the other side of the threshold question of the future. Your life is yours to craft. The strange newness of this moment places the question before us. How we answer will create the world in which we will all live.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah