This week’s parsha comes at a very critical time, both in recent modern history as well as on the Jewish calendar. We are at the end of the Hebrew month of Av and the month of Elul is about to begin, which is a month dedicated to repentance. It’s a time when Jews take stock of the year that has been in preparation for the new year and for the time in which the world is judged. Many people undertake greater study, make apologies to those they may have wronged, and seek to figure out what they can learn from this past year.
It’s fitting that his week’s parsha begins with explaining that following Hashem’s laws will bring the Jewish people blessings, but failing to follow them will bring curses. Hashem does not force us to follow His will, but instead gives us the free choice. It’s also clear that it isn’t always easy to follow His will, that often it takes effort and a real determination to choose correctly. In short, this week’s parsha tells us that there is no way to sit on the fence…we have to choose one path or another and there are consequences for making the wrong choice.
However, there is some consolation in how this is worded. The Torah says, “See that I am placing before you a blessing and a curse.” This means that we’re not left to blindly try to figure out what is good and what is evil in the world. We’re shown and taught what goodness is as well as what evil is. We’re instructed by the Torah as to what is good and we’re also shown in our own lives what good is. We’re also taught what is bad by Torah.
This week I was unfortunate enough to be forwarded a video of a family of white supremacists. The mother in the family had a baby in her arms and a toddler next to her as she spoke of her hatred of Jews and her desire for a genocide. Her children, wide eyed and innocent, were too young to understand her words. To me, the greatest sadness in that video was that these children will have a much harder time seeing what is a blessing and what is a curse because they will first have to overcome what they will be taught by the people they instinctively trust the most, their own mother and father.
I can imagine that in the time in which Moses was speaking to the Jewish people, it was just as difficult, if not harder for any people to overcome their upbringing. Idolatry was rampant and literal in the land the Jews were about to inherit. Great statues had been built to false gods and the Jews were commanded to obliterate every trace of them, less they later be led to gather around them and worship them. Hashem’s commandments to destroy every single symbol of idolatry and even the commandment to annihilate all the people who followed them showed a very pragmatic knowledge of human nature. Hashem knew that if any trace of those groups or their symbols remained, it would only be a matter of time before their descendants returned and used those symbols as a rallying point.
Of course, in hindsight, we already know what was going to happen in this story. The Jews would not follow these commands and didn’t wipe out all who lived in the land and eventually, repeatedly, they did fall into idol worship, bringing about the curse of galus, of exile. I can imagine at the time that it would have seemed heartless to wipe out an entire people. It’s something I struggle with in Torah myself because I consider all genocide an evil.
I wonder, though, if there is a spiritual way to wipe out a people that has become toxic to all who surround them, a way that doesn’t involve violence or bloodshed. If the Jews had destroyed every monument to the evil of idolatry, would there have been a way to ensure that it never rose again even without killing every man, woman, and child of the people who had built it? Is there a way to remove the evil without destroying the people?
People have likely pondered questions like this ever since Moses gave these commands and still we wrestle with those among us who are drawn to the same evils. Perhaps its the consequence of free will that some people will choose to use that will to create hate or idolatry and then will choose to teach their children that instead of what is truly good.
Hashem sets before all us blessings and curses for us to see and choose and makes it clear that there is a choice to be made even when it would be easier to avoid. In Elul, looking back over the year, I need to see where I may have made the wrong choice, where I need to repair what I may have broken, and how I can prepare to be a better person in the year to come.
May we all make the choices that lead to blessings and inspire others to do the same.