Parshat Ki Tavo begins to bring us to the end of the book of Deuteronomy, and with it the Five Books of Moses. Where in last week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, we found a portion stuffed with laws–much like Parshat Misphatim or Parshat Kedoshim–in this week’s reading we find a transition to the final chapters of Deuteronomy, in which Moses will exhort the people one final time.

Ki Tavo caps the legal sections of Deuteronomy with the blessing and (much longer) curse that will accrue to the people if they fulfill, or fail to fulfill, the commandments. This portion is always read before Rosh Hashanah, and can be thematically linked with one reading of the High Holidays: we must examine our deeds and do teshuva in order to earn the blessing and avoid the curse. This is a transactional view: I do for God, and God does for me. The problem with it is that, as soon as one experiences the reality that good deeds are not always rewarded, and even worse that bad things happen to good people, it becomes unsustainable: I did everything right, and still God didn’t take care of me. So I’m giving up on God and Torah.

But there are other approaches. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) recounts the story of Elisha ben Abuya, the famous apostate who left Judaism after witnessing a young boy die while falling from a ladder after his father asked him to climb it, send away a mother bird, and retrieve the eggs from its nest. Both the mitzvot the boy performed–honoring his father and sending away the mother bird–come with the assurance that they will lead to “lengthening of days,” according to the Torah. How then could the boy tragically die? The Talmud offers the response that reward and punishment don’t happen in this world–s’char v’onesh b’hai alma leika–but rather happen in the next.

This approach essentially says that the transactional understanding of our relationship with God isn’t fully adequate, but is essentially right: the reward and punishment happens in the next world, rather than this one. And that may work for many people as we approach the High Holidays.

Another approach is that of the Hasidim of the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, I want to draw our attention to one comment of the Gerer Rebbe, the author of the Sefas Emes. This is one of his comments on the parasha from 5652 (1892), which begins with a midrashic analogy of Torah and water:

The notion here is that there are waters one can pass through, which are likened to the simple matters of the Torah; these come up to a person’s belly or his neck. But there are also deep waters which have no end, which are called sailing waters–only one who knows how to sail can pass through them. Such a person is one who can diminish himself and become light above the water; it is one who can make himself as if he were lifeless, [totally dependent] upon the Torah, and then he can enter into these deep waters.

All are worthy of the power of Torah, which teaches how to enter into the depths of the abyss. For just as one cannot learn to sail except by going on the water, so too the Torah teaches how to nullify oneself and to ascend to enter into its inner parts. This is what is meant by “Listen, O listen” (Deut. 28:1: v’haya im shamoa tishma): there is no end to the rooms of Torah.

This is a different approach than the contractual one. It is richer, thicker. The Sefas Emes, here as in so many places, understands human nature in its simplicity and its complexity. Our relationship is as easy and complicated as our relationship with ourselves. The key is our posture towards the world. For the Sefas Emes, as for the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl or the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas a century later, the world is not about me: it is about God (in the case of the Sefas Emes), or the needs of the other (in the case of Frankl and Levinas). The process of self-abnegation, or bittul, is essential. In order to go into the deeper possibilities of Torah and of life, we have to get over ourselves–we have to be able to float on the water. And being able to float, as any swimmer knows, is what enables us to swim.

As we wade through Elul and approach Rosh Hashanah, I find this kind of orientation much more helpful and resonant than the contractual orientation. Certain questions are unanswerable, at least in the language we normally use. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why am I not being rewarded for my good deeds? As we all know, the world is a more complicated place than that. But it is also a simpler place. The question isn’t so much about contracts, as about learning to float and learning to swim.

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

~ Denise Levertov (1923-1997), “The Avowal”

Shabbat shalom.