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Torah Commentary
Ki Tavo (September 24, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

A Treasured People?

When I was in high school, I used to go over to my great-aunt Fanny’s house on Saturday afternoons. Fanny was “at home” on Saturdays, entertaining anyone who came by with tea and cake and lots of stories of the “good old days.” Fanny was a local character, and her stories frequently were very entertaining. Another reason I went was that my high school football games were on Saturday afternoons, and I rarely had a date.

Fanny’s granddaughter, my cousin Susan, was a cheerleader, so she didn’t need a date, although she usually had one for after the game. One day, Fanny said to me, “I am so glad you come to see me on Saturdays. Susan never comes!” Of course, that was the last Saturday I went. I did not want Fanny to think I was a good girl and Susan wasn’t, when the truth was that Susan’s presence at the games was essential and mine wasn’t.

Believe it or not, there are many similarities between that story and our parashah. Susan may have been chosen, but she also had to choose. She had responsibilities. She had to go to the game when she had a cold or the weather was terrible. (And it can be COLD in Northeastern Pennsylvania in November!) I had to choose as well — to stand up to Aunt Fanny and to stand by my cousin.

In the parashah, the expression “Am Segulah,” is translated as “a treasured people,” but the more commonly used phrase, “a chosen people” also would apply. Here, near the end of their journey through the desert, Moses reminds the people that they are treasured (chosen) by God and describes the blessings that God will bestow on them if they keep His commandments and the curses that they will incur if they do not. There are a whole lot more curses than blessings. Is this what it means to be chosen?

Being “treasured,” or “chosen,” is a two-way street. It carries a lot of responsibilities. Legend has it that God offered the Ten Commandments to many other nations and that each one refused the responsibility until the tiny nation of Israel said, “We will do and we will hear.” In other words, “We will do what You say, even before we hear what the Commandments are.” That was early on in the journey, before the giving of the Commandments on Mount Sinai.

Now the descendants of those wanderers are coming to the end of the journey. Moses, their leader, is old and has been denied the honor of reaching the Promised Land. He is desperate to make sure that the people obey the contract to which their ancestors agreed. So he takes the “carrot and stick” approach: “This is what you get for keeping the Commandments, and this is your punishment for not keeping them.” There are a lot more sticks than carrots. Will it work?

As parents, many of us have been faced by the same dilemma. Is it better to promise a reward for cleaning up your room or a punishment for not cleaning it? Or will the child clean his or her room simply because it is the right thing to do? In a perfect world, all our children will do what we ask because they love us or because they want to do the right thing.

But it is not a perfect world, and as our parashah shows us, it never was. It is cheering to realize that, all those millennia ago, people faced the same dilemmas as we do today. In Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of Our Fathers) 2:21, Rabbi Tarfon says, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

The Children of Israel agreed to observe the Commandments and then continued their journey to the Promised Land without Moses. It was not an easy journey. Being an “Am Segulah” turned out to be a mixed blessing. But they stumbled on, and their legacy — those Commandments and the commitment to try and make the world better — is with us today.

We will not perfect the world in our lifetime — but we must keep on trying.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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