We're doing the best we can; Bring on the blessings!

We are quickly hurtling towards the Jewish New Year. In this season of self-reflection and introspection – and as we head towards days of “judgment” and “atonement” – we begin to focus on the many ways we’ve fallen short and missed the mark over the past year and ask for God’s forgiveness despite our human failings. This self-critical approach feels quintessentially Jewish; when done well, it can certainly fuel positive growth and change.

We are quickly hurtling towards the Jewish New Year. In this season of self-reflection and introspection – and as we head towards days of “judgment” and “atonement” – we begin to focus on the many ways we’ve fallen short and missed the mark over the past year and ask for God’s forgiveness despite our human failings. This self-critical approach feels quintessentially Jewish; when done well, it can certainly fuel positive growth and change.

This year, however, I’m sensing that as the High Holidays approach, many of us need to hear a different message and use these days in a different way. This pandemic has dragged on, forcing us to adapt and adjust constantly. Planning and decision-making are challenging for everyone right now; too often, we’ve been pulled in opposite directions and faced with impossible choices. We are weary, and it’s hard for any of us to feel like our “best selves” in this state. Rather than harsh judgment, what we need most right now is a break… an affirmation that we are okay as we are, an acknowledgement that we are doing our best.

This week, Parashat Ki Tavo comes to our rescue. In it, the text of Deuteronomy considers what will happen when the Israelites enter into the Promised Land. On several occasions, the people are commanded to make declarations before God. The most famous of these is the first fruits declaration (“arami oved avi”), which comes early in the parasha and makes it into the Passover haggadah.

The second declaration, though, is the one that caught my eye this Elul – canbe found in Deuteronomy 26:12-14. The Israelite is commanded to set aside a tithe (one tenth) of their agricultural yield, to give this food to the members of society who need it, “that they may eat their fill,” and then to make the following declaration to God:

“I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments… I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me.”

The Hebrew phrase lo avarti” (“I didn’t transgress”) is particularly striking. Here, the Israelite claims: I haven’t done anything wrong!

This text stands in such stark contrast to the High Holiday liturgy we will soon encounter in the machzor, as we acknowledge over and over again that we did transgress, and sin, and err, etc. In Ki Tavo, no one is beating their chest while reciting a litany of sins from A to Z. On the contrary, the assertion is exactly the opposite: actually, we’ve tried to help one another, and we’ve done a pretty good job of it, the best that we could.  

The line that follows these verses in Ki Tavo is the clincher, and it is exquisitely beautiful. Deuteronomy 26:15 addresses God directly: “Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our ancestors.” Now that we’ve done our part, God, it’s your turn to pay attention to us and fulfill your side of the bargain.

I like that both of these impulses – the themes of confession and judgment and teshuva, on the one hand, and the insistence that we have done good and not transgressed, on the other – exist in such strong and substantive ways in our Jewish tradition. Both are real; both are grounded in key texts.

As the High Holidays approach, we will certainly find opportunities to think about the ways in which we could do better and be better. But, this may be precisely the year when our most critical need is to go easy on ourselves. Living through a pandemic is hard. Each of us is doing the bestwe can in the face of great challenges. We have, indeed, helped one another through these times; we have been generous to strangers; wehave accrued merits. This is the time to really lean into the Ki Tavo approach, to cultivate self-compassion, and then invite God, too, to look down upon us from the holy abode with favor and love and blessing.

As we approach this season of sweetness (both the milk-and-honey sweetness mentioned in the parasha, and the apples-and-honey kind of Rosh Hashanah), I wish us all a year of blessing and affirmation, love and connection. I look forward to spending these High Holidays with all of you!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum