Ki Tavo | The Burden of Opportunity
Summarized by Moshe Kahan
Parashat Ki Tavo discusses the system of reward and punishment for Bnei Yisrael. Oddly, though, both the introductory verse to the reward (28:1) and the introductory verse to the punishment (28:15) emphasize the need to keep "kol mitzvotav" - all of the mitzvot. According to these verses, reward is ours only if we keep every single mitzva, complying with each letter. Who can achieve this level? Who is capable of keeping every last mitzva? The parasha does not seem to take people's different capabilities into account.
We would think that the Torah would make some accommodation for those whose capabilities are not up to the demands of the verse - and this for two reasons. First, we think of God's "rachamim;" shouldn't those who are simply incapable be viewed with mercy and sympathy? Second, what about tzedek and din? How is it just that those who have no means of achieving a task, be punished for not doing so?
We see these questions reflected in Chazal on both individual and public levels. On an individual level, the Gemara in Eruvin (65) addresses this issue. Rav Sheshet states in the name of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azarya that he can exempt the entire world from punishment for sin after the destruction of the Temple. For, as the verse in Yishayahu states, "Shim'u na zot aniya VE-SHIKORET, VE-LO MI-YAYIN" - one who is drunk cannot control himself and therefore cannot be punished for what he has done. Although the gemara concludes that this refers only to praying while drunk, the principle exists nonetheless.
On a broader scale, the Gemara in Berakhot (32) relates Moshe's pleas to God after the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe excused Benei Yisrael's action as being caused by the huge amounts of money they brought out from Egypt. The school of R. Yanai explains Moshe's claim with a parable. If one were to raise a son, wash him, clothe him, feed him and then place him outside a brothel with a money bag around his neck, can one expect the son not to sin? Moshe's defense thus portrayed Benei Yisrael as victims of their circumstances.
We find this idea in modern scientific studies of penology and criminology. All has been predetermined for man; he has no real power to choose good over evil, but merely reacts to what he is and what has influenced him. Taken to one extreme, this deterministic view of life would mean that punishment would be meaningless on an ethical level, for how can we be responsible for something we cannot control?
Rambam examines the deterministic view of life in Hilkhot Teshuva. In his day, the deterministic worldview was expressed not in terms of psychology or sociology, but rather in terms of astrology - one's fate was written in the stars. In the very same chapter in which Rambam introduces us to the principle of free will (bechira chofshit), he discusses the foolishness of determinism. If man were really impelled to do good or evil, and lacked free will, what would be the point of the prophets' constant exhortations to do good? What would be the use of the Torah? What would be the use of reward and punishment? How can The Great Judge not dispense real justice?
One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that we are all given a certain potential. Not everyone will succumb to temptation at the doorstep of the brothel. Our potential may be limited to one area, but within that area we are expected to succeed. The greatness that Reuven achieves may not be possible for Shimon. Conversely, the sins that Reuven may succumb to may be outside of the realm of possibility for Shimon. We may be limited and determined to a degree, but we also have our freedoms. It may be more tempting to focus on the fact that our potential and opportunities are limited - giving us less responsibility - than on the flip side of the coin. When we are given special potential to succeed, or enhanced opportunities to perform, more is expected from us. While someone placed at the doorstep of a brothel may be expected to succumb, someone placed at the doorstep of a beit midrash is expected to achieve.
Again, Chazal elaborate on this theme in two ways: on individual and communal levels. The Midrash on the verse "la'asot kol mitzvotav" offers a parable. Two men are sent to work on the king's fields. One does nothing with his field, while the other grows trees - which he promptly cuts down. With whom is the king more angry, if not the man who grows and destroys? So too, those who have learned Torah but do not perform, anger God more than those without knowledge or potential. They do not live up to Divine expectations - an unsatisfactory situation on two levels. First, one who has learned and does not perform the mitzvot seems to spurn and disgrace the Torah. But there is another problem. Whoever has the potential and the opportunity but doesn't use them, is held more responsible than one who never had any conception of what was expected of him.
Finally, the Yerushalmi in Sota questions the meaning of the verse (Devarim 27:26): "Cursed be the one who does not uphold (literally, lift up) the words of this Torah." Is it possible that the Torah can fall, and thus we need to raise it up? Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalafta says that this is referring to the earthly courts (beit din). Rabbi Asi in the name of Rabbi Tanchum Bar Chiya says, "[Whoever] learned, and taught, and guarded, and performed, and could have maintained... he is cursed!" Those who have the opportunity have an obligation to strengthen Torah for the entire community at large.
We, who live in a democratic community, where the very basis of power is distributed within the people as a whole, therefore have those responsibilities and obligations that would have fallen to other hands in earlier times. Since everybody has power in a democratic society, the responsibility to maintain Torah in the community rests upon us all.
In Elul, where it is incumbent upon of all of us to perform introspection, we must recognize what opportunities are given to us, what potential we have, what realms we can succeed in. For bnei Torah especially, there can be no doubt that our obligations are so much greater because of the opportunities within our reach. These responsibilities may be heavy, and we pray that God will help us in our burden of achieving spiritual growth and moral success, both for ourselves and for the community as a whole.
(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo 5755 .)