Drash for Parshat Ki Tavo
Today is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a man who once said about the Shma Koleinu, one of the most famous prayers of the high holidays: “In the Shma Koleynu prayer it says, “Al Tashlicheynu li et zikna. Do not throw us away in the time of old age.” He continued: “This prayer refers not just to the elderly but to Judaism itself. Why do people throw away the mitzvot? Because they grow old, because they become stale, because they seem boring.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, there’s an oblique reference to this staleness, this boredom. The first half of the portion concerns itself with all the mitzvot, the laws, the people are expected to keep. And in the second half, God tells the people the consequences should they fail to keep them, and warns them “[Should you fail to keep my commandments] [I] will give you an anguished heart, eyes that fail, and a despondent spirit.”
An anguished heart we can understand, and a despondent spirit too. But eyes that fail? Are these cataracts? Blurry raybans? Well, according to the Rabbis, it’s not actual physical blindness that this verse refers to but a deadening of vision, an inability to see – the life and blessings that are right in front of us. And it is also an inability to see beyond – beyond frustration, sorrows and anger.
So why does this matter now? This week’s parsha, after all, concerns itself mostly with the mitzvot, the commandments, many of them quite mundane, that are our day to day responsibilities.
Because when we come here two weeks from now for Rosh HaShanah we’re not only going to be asked to look at the big mistakes we have made, the victories we’ve won, the opportunities we have lost and the transformations of the past year. We’re going to be called to account for the totality of our lives, for the smallest moments that got lost between the big ones, for the tiny stuff, the forgotten words, the thoughtless gestures, the lack of attention, the missed opportunities.
Because the High Holidays invite us to not only revisit how well we have lived, but the moments in which we have not lived. By dwelling on our mortality at this time of year, our attention is meant to be drawn, in part, to all the living we have missed, by not paying attention. The flowers we didn’t smell, the walk on the beach with our loved one we didn’t make time for, or the homeless person we didn’t stop to acknowledge, because we were living – we believed – under the tyranny of time (and our iphones). All the small ways in which we have not been mindful. The quality of attention we brought (or did not) to each moment.
Some of you know that in college I studied Buddhism, and one of the gifts from this time in my life is that I have retained a daily meditation practice. And I had the opportunity to think about this verse – eyes that fail you – during my morning practice this week. I was sitting on the couch (where I meditate when I’m too lazy to sit on the cushion on the floor) with my eyes open (which I do when I’m too lazy to close them, because I’m worried I’ll fall asleep,) and outside, on the hummingbird feeder outside my window were two hummingbirds. Not one; two! And I felt a flash of irritation, and had the very unRabbinic unmeditative impulse to look away. Why? BECAUSE THE HUMMINGBIRDS WERE DISTRACTING ME FROM MEDITATING.
Are you laughing at this? Because if you’re not, you should be. See, the point of meditation practice is mindfulness, it’s awareness. It’s about noticing the small stuff, and letting go of the idea that we have to constantly become, so that we can learn to allow ourselves to just be. The hummingbirds are an object lesson in this. So is our breath. And so are the mitzvot, the commandments, the myriad little ways that Judaism gives us to be conscious and mindful of each action, word, and interaction. “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart,” we say in our liturgy each day “Be acceptable to you.” When we lose sight of this, when we lose sight that our lives are happening all the time – not just in those peak moments of joy or adrenalin (though those don’t hurt) – but in the smaller moments, we lose the blessings, and the awe tucked into all of them. We forget to look at, and really see, the miracle of the hummingbirds.
This is not something that happens all at once, this learning to see. It takes effort and work to become aware, to change the pace of our lives, to stop (as Shabbat allows us to) once a week, or once a day, or many times a day, and appreciate and become conscious of all that we have, all that surrounds us. If we fail to do this, we may, in the words of the Baal Shem Tov, find that our lives and our Judaism have grown old, become stale, or boring. But this staleness, this boredom, isn’t inevitable. It’s a momentary forgetting, and, like our breath, we can always bring our attention back to it.
I’d like to close with a Hasidic story this evening. One afternoon, on his way to the house of study, Rabbi Levi saw a man racing across the market square. He ran so fast that his coattails and tzittzit flapped behind him. In one hand he clutched a tattered briefcase, the other hand was clamped on top of his hat to keep it from flying off his head. As the man ran past, Reb Levi called to him. The man stopped for a moment and greeted the Rabbi between gulps pf air.
“Where are you running so swiftly?” the Rabbi asked.
“What do you mean Rabbi?” The man said sharply, making no attempt to hide his displeasure at having been made to stop. “I’m earning my living, running after my livelihood. There are opportunities for success ahead of me and if I don’t race after them they’ll escape me.”
“And how do you know,” the Rabbi asked, “that these opportunities lie before you? Perhaps you’re racing by them? Or even worse, perhaps they’re behind you and you’re running away from them?”
The man simply stared at the Rabbi, not understanding: “Listen, my friend” Rabbi Levi said, “I’m not saying that you should not earn a living. I’m only worried that in your obsession with earning you are missing out on the living.”
(From Hasidic Tales, ed. By Rabbi Rami Shapiro, p. 129)