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Kee Tavo 5771-2011

“The Challenge of Bountifulness”

by Rabbi  Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, incorporates the second of the Torah’s two tochachot, G-d’s admonitions to His people. Once again, we see that before G-d threatens the people with the dire consequences of sin, He always blesses the people with blessings that will accrue to the nation for faithfully fulfilling His commandments.

The beautiful introductory blessings that are found in Deuteronomy 28:1-2, begin with the following words: “V’ha’ya eem sha’mo’ah tish’mah b’kol Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah,” And it shall come to pass, that if you hearken to the voice of the L-rd, your G-d, to observe, to perform all of His commandments that I command you this day, then the L-rd, your G-d, will make you supreme over all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you only hearken to the voice of the L-rd, your G-d.

The commentators elaborate on this fateful covenant by explaining the implied meaning of the blessing. Moses tells the people, in G-d’s name, that if they follow and listen to the voice of G-d, not out of fear, but due to a sincere desire to fulfill all the commandments of G-d, G-d will make the people of Israel supreme over all the nations of the earth. These blessings will come even if logic and nature dictate that they cannot possibly happen.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) notes that the term, “V’hee’see’goo’chah,” and they [the blessings] will overtake you, indicates that G-d will be so gracious to His people that the people will be overtaken by blessings, even when they make no effort to obtain them.

Is being showered with blessings of abundance truly a blessing? The question whether the curse of poverty is a greater challenge than the blessing of wealth is a conundrum that has confounded thinkers for centuries.

There is a wonderful parable related in the name of the Maggid of Dubno (R’ Yaakov Krantz, 1741-1804, the most famous of the Eastern European maggidim–itinerant preachers) regarding the passage in the Passover Hagaddah, “Ha lachma anya,” This is the bread of affliction.

Once, a pauper became extremely wealthy, but didn’t want his family to take their newfound affluence for granted. So he instituted the practice of concluding each meal with a piece of hard bread dipped into water as a reminder of the family’s years of famine, where all they ate was stale bread and water.

After many years, the man lost his fortune and became a pauper again, but continued the custom of dipping bread into water. Some of his neighbors asked the pauper why he continued the practice, since he no longer needed a reminder that he is truly poor. The pauper explained that when he was wealthy, he made some long-term loans of many thousands of gold coins. Although he has no money now, once the loans come due, he will again be wealthy. His present habits of poverty were no more than reminders.

There is virtually universal agreement that being poor is not easy, especially when children have no food to eat, clothes to wear, or shoes on their feet. The challenges of poverty are bitter and fierce. Surely, no one wishes to be subjected to them.

But the challenges of wealth, especially great wealth, could be very significant as well, perhaps even greater than the challenges of poverty. Much unhappiness results from unrestrained consumption and unlimited abundance. Family infighting and estrangement is common. The inability to be totally happy frequently develops, because of the desire to always want more. Even the challenge of allocating charity funds effectively is fraught with uncertainty.

Therefore, our commentators underscore the challenges of wealth when they explain the verse in Deuteronomy 28:2, “Oo’va’oo ah’leh’cha kol ha’brachot ha’ay’leh, v’hee’see’goo’cha, kee tishmah b’kol Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah,” All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you hearken to the voice of the L-rd, your G-d. The commentators see in this verse the great test and challenge of wealth.

The Bible itself underscores this challenge on several occasions. Scripture, in Deuteronomy 8:12-14, warns, “Lest you eat and be satiated…  and your heart will become haughty, and you will forget the L-rd, your G-d.” A similar theme is reiterated in Deuteronomy 32:15, “Israel became fat, and kicked… and deserted G-d its Maker.” The commentators explain that the greatness of the blessings cited in our parasha is such that even though the people will be blessed with all these blessings, abundance will not lead them astray. To the contrary, they will, in fact, hearken even more faithfully to the voice of the L-rd, their G-d.

In this vein, it is appropriate to note, parenthetically, that for many decades, few Jews of significant achievement in American politics or business remained loyal to their faith. Many, unfortunately, assimilated and intermarried. Some even converted to other faiths in order to advance their careers. Sadly, few of the many notable American Jews who are regarded as great achievers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have descendants who today identify as Jews.

Unfortunately, the meltdown of the American Jewish community continues to take a great toll. At the same time, we see the rise of a new generation of proud and committed Jews, who are making significant contributions to society, not at the expense of their Jewishness, but as a tribute to their Jewishness. We must be proud of such people, like Senator Joe Lieberman and Professor Robert Aumann, who, though at the pinnacle of their chosen fields, remain proud and committed Jews for all to admire.

May we see their numbers increase.

May you be blessed.