Parshat Ki Tavo
September 5, 2009
16 Elul 5769
The challenges of exile and defeat were many. Despair was but one of them. The strain on the nation\’s identity and values was enormous. The question of remaining separate and different, when the cost was tremendous, must have posed an enormous challenge, straining the motivation of even the most faithful. They desperately needed encouragement. The nation needed to know that it was worthwhile to be different and that its beliefs and way of life were worth maintaining. Ultimately, God\’s path would prove attractive to the nations.
Isaiah\’s prophecy serves up this message: \”Arise, shine for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you! Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you the Lord will shine and His Presence be seen over you. And nations shall walk by your light, kings by your shining radiance.\” (60:1-3)
Isaiah\’s message was eschatological in nature, namely, it was intended for the end of time, which the prophet may have believed was soon at hand because the end of the Babylonian exile was near. Later generations, however, suffered similar existential questions, constantly reflecting on why a minority people should maintain its differences. This challenge is reflected in this 5th century midrash on this week\’s haftarah:
\”For with You (God) is the fountain of life, in Your light we see light.\” (Psalm 36:10)
R. Simeon ben Lakish said: Understand this verse from this parable: A king, who had a son, invited guests to the palace for a meal. He asked his son: \’Would you like to eat with the guests?\’ The son answered: \’No.\’ The father asked him again: \’With whom would you like to eat?\’ The son replied: \’With you.\’ So, too, God asked: \’My children, do you want to eat with the nations of the earth?\’ They replied: \’Master of the universe, \’Turn not my heart to sinful thoughts or to the pursuit of evil things. The evil doers appall me, not for me the delights of their table.\’ (Ps. 141:4). He said to them: Is it because they (the nations) pursue evil things that you do not want to eat with them? They said before God: \’Master of the Universe, the delights of their table are not for me. We do not want to share even in their good and handsome gifts. What do we really want? We want the good and handsome portions that come from you, namely, Your commandments, as is said: \’For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we shall see light, and it says: Nations shall come to Your light.\’ (Isa. 60:3).\” (adapted from Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 21:3 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 320-1 and Midrash Tehillim 36:6 Buber ed. pp. 250-1)
In this midrash, the Jewish people plead with God not to tempt them with assimilation. Instead, they express their undying loyalty to their unique ways of serving God, with an appreciation that ultimately the world will also come to appreciate these ways. This is a challenging but dignified path. It is what leadership is all about. It is the very essence of being a Jew.