A man with a million dollar bill in his possession was once asked what his greatest desire is. “Of all things,” he said he wished for, “I think change would be nice.” Change is a word that many people dread and very few really crave. Yet, it is the word of this season (of repentance), one that cannot be avoided. Unfortunately, the majority of people do not put themselves in a position to really change themselves and improve their lives and relationships with others and their Creator. Several factors hold us back. One, we are creatures of comfort and find the same old to be reassuring. In a recent study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology (November 2010), evidence shows people prefer the old over the new, even if the new is exciting. As an example, people who have been told that acupuncture has been in existence for over 2,000 years expressed more favorable attitude towards it than those who were told that it existed for 250 years.
Sometimes, it is the environment that holds people back from really changing themselves. They feel peer pressure to remain status quo, lest they be ridiculed and mocked by the company they keep. And other times, people just have a fear of the unknown (xenophobia) that is synonymous with shaking things up. Finally, there are those people who erroneously believe that changing won’t make a difference in the bottom line or won’t last. And so, in this season of repentance, many feel hopeless and hypocritical promising lasting changes to Hashem when past history suggests how flimsy and temporal the changes are.
This week’s portion, Ki Savo, concentrates mainly on two topics: Bikkurim (first-born fruit) and the Admonition (the litany of 98 curses that would befall the Jewish people if they do not keep the Torah as they should). But a closer study reveals that there is another major theme, namely the repetition of a word in three different contexts. The word is “Hayom” (today) and it pops up in the following verses: Devarim 26:16, 27:9, and 29:3. Yet, it’s usage and purpose is immediately unclear. Even the first time it appears, it seems to be superfluous. The verse reads (ibid. 26:16): “This day, the L-rd, your G-d, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul.” The reason the word “today” doesn’t seem to fit is that when Moshe made this statement, Hashem had been giving commandment for 40 years. And we can’t say that Moshe used some slang expression, as every word in the Torah must be accounted for.
The Mesiach Ilmim explains that “today” in this context is to warn us against our service becoming routine. This is very important, of course, as robotic service to Hashem isn’t exactly the type with the highest quality (although it may be argued it’s better than nothing). But the bigger question that emerges from this is: why does this idea have to repeat itself another two times (in Devarim 27:9 and then 29:3)?
The simple answer would be that if something is really important, many reminders are needed (who sets only one alarm for an important business meeting?). But that answer still leaves us with something more to be desired. Perhaps, we may suggest, the repetition may be teaching us to avoid and battle “rote” in several different areas. Let’s examine.
The first area that rote diminishes quality is in Mitzvah observance (as gathered from the rest of the verse). The Torah tells us that “Mitzvas Anoshim Milimuda” (Yeshaya 29:13) – people get used to doing commandments. Mussar (Torah ethics) giants like Rav Chaim Shmulewitz, OB”M, used to warn against the pitfalls of “Hergel,” performing commandments out of routine, as is often the case of someone who grows up in a religious family and mindlessly imitates his parents and siblings. So, what does it mean, then, when we ask Hashem in our daily prayers, “Accustom us to study your Torah?” Isn’t getting used to anything not conducive to growth??
To this, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, OB”M, explains that there has to be a duality in our approach. He writes: “our lives must constantly oscillate between maintaining continuity through healthy established routines and discovering freshness and novelty in every sacred act.” Let’s take something as commonplace and frequent as prayer. We cannot have a different text for davening, but we must not let there be no recognizable difference from one prayer to the next. There are sections where we offer our own personal requests, which should inspire and color the rest of our prayers. Furthermore, learning the meaning of the words will helps invigorate this activity.
The second time “today” appears (ibid 27:9) may be to address the approach we take to our sins. True, sins become rote-like, in the forms of learned addictions. The Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) does state that if one repeats a wrongful behavior, it becomes “permitted” in his eyes. But the wording in the rest of the verse seems to indicate how today we are standing before G-d, as well as leaders of “your tribes, your officers and every man.” Many people sin repeatedly because they think that they “only” have to give an accounting to G-d after they leave this world. But the truth is, we stand before G-d every day, as at nighttime, our soul goes up to the Next World for judgment. Furthermore, we stand every day in front of other people, some of whom will judge us (which affects us) and some are influenced by our negative behavior, especially in areas of Bein Adam L’Chavero (interpersonal commandments). As such, we need to tread carefully when it comes to our sins and try our hardest not to fall into consistent sinning.
Finally, the third appearance of “today” is in the verse that states (ibid 29:3) that “until this day, G-d has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” This is talking about the newness that exists in Creation that we have to on the lookout for. As we say, Hashem is “Mechadesh” the Creation every day. The “today” here is therefore suggesting mindset that we should have when it comes to our lives. The saying goes, “you never walk into the same room twice.” Those people who have a certain experience and then try to re-create it the next day (even with all the factors and players being the same) will attest to the veracity of this adage. Hashem purposely makes no two people the same, in terms of appearance or personality. He also makes every situation with a different potential and energy, but often we have to work really hard to notice and take advantage of it.
And sometimes, it takes a while to appreciate fully the changes in Creation and the changes in us. Rashi (on Devarim 29:6) explains this verse – that only at the end of the wandering in the Desert did the Jews understand the process – to mean that a person doesn’t assimilate his teacher’s lessons until 40 years later (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 5b). This is the reason why we must not despair that we were in this exact position last year, made the same promises, and ended up reneging or collapsing. Life cannot be viewed as an “all-or-nothing” affair. Every day we chip away and inch closer to fulfilling our potential. We may not see the transformation taking place, but that’s because we live with ourselves and cannot notice the changes. The important thing is not to get discouraged and learn the lesson of the way a Chinese Bamboo Tree grows: after planting, for four years it’s bare, and then it grows 80 feet in six weeks.
The reality is that the tree was growing the whole time, underground, but we just didn’t see it. We cannot afford to let our frustrations over slow progress take over our thoughts. Instead, we should just remember that growth takes a while and one day we will reap the immeasurable rewards of the hard work we invested in trying to improve ourselves.