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The Parsha of Curses and Perspective on Living in South Africa.

Distilled from a drosha at Chabad of Strathavon, Parshas Ki Savo, 21 Elul 5779 (21 Sep 2019). 

You need to study this week’s Parsha to gain perspective on how to live in South Africa. That’s not because this is the Parsha of curses, although I wouldn’t be surprised if people imagined that would be the SA connection. Quite the contrary, it is the Parsha that teaches us inosght into the nagging problems of modern life.

Our Parsha opens with the description of Bikkurim. Bikkurim were the first fruits that Jewish farmers in ancient Israel would bring to the Temple each year, in a ceremony of dedication to Hashem and gratitude for His blessings. Farmers would travel in groups to Jerusalem, and as the groups joined with other groups, they would form a festive parade, with music, singing and fanfare, as they approached the Holy City.

On presentation of the Bikkurim, the farmer would also read a declaration. “Ve-onisa Ve-omarta”, “You shall answer and say”, is how the Torah describes this declaration, and our Sages note that these words indicate that the farmer was to read his declaration aloud and with joy. It was a moment of profound gratitude. Every farmer thanked G-d for the blessings of his livelihood.

Only, when you examine the text of this thanksgiving declaration, you will immediately be struck by the incongruous nature of the text. Standing there in G-d’s home, as he begins to thank the Almighty for blessings, the farmer recounts, “An Aramean wanted to destroy my forefather, and we went down into Egypt…” How odd. This is a time for thanks, a time to appreciate bounty, why the need to reference tough moments in our history?

Therein lies the wisdom of this portion of thanksgiving. We are not to simply thank G-d for those blessings that we are able to see. We are to open our eyes to the blessings that emerge through challenge.

“An Aramean wanted to destroy my father”, yet that same father, Yaakov, emerged from that chapter of his life blessed- with great wealth, spiritual fortitude and the family that would evolve into the Jewish nation.

Later, that very family would be dragged into- and later still be enslaved by-Egypt, but would emerge a blessed People, G-d’s firstborn child and a Light unto the Nations.

Every year, as Jews from around Israel would converge on our holiest place, they would reiterate how gratitude is not limited to the easy, happy times, but is really about appreciating the deep growth that comes through challenges.

Further on, the Parsha offers even more insight into the challenge/blessings continuum. Moshe tells Joshua that one of the first things that the Jews will need to do when they enter the Promised Land is to publicly announce a series of blessings and curses- for those who follow, or ignore, the Torah’s instructions.

When he describes the blessings, Moshe says “And all these blessings will come to you and reach you”. The language seems superfluous- if the blessings “come to you”, surely they “reach you”?

Sometimes blessings come our way, but we don’t recognize them, so we don’t access them. We are often too busy looking elsewhere, focused on all that is wrong in life, that we don’t notice when brocha unfolds in front of our eyes. As they say, “When a door of opportunity closes, we keep staring at it so long that we don’t notice when a new door opens”.

Torah language is precise, and the term for “reach you” is “hisigucha” in Hebrew. It’s the same word used in “hasagas gvul”, trespassing. “Hasagas gvul” was when someone would move the boundary markers along his neighbour’s field, to encroach on that person’s space.

In other words, “hisigucha” could also mean “shift you”. G-d constantly sends us blessings, but if we don’t shift, we don’t necessarily access them. If we are in a toxic headspace, obsessed with negativity, we don’t see the brochos. The key to receiving blessing is to shift your position and perspective to align with the trajectory of those blessings.

You will see this message most starkly in the description of those horrific curses listed in the Parsha. After detailing ninety-eight dreadful maledictions, the Torah briefly hints at why these curses come. “Because you did not serve G-d with joy, in times of abundance”.

When you complain during good times, you close yourself to better times.

This Parsha carries the secrets to making it in SA.

First: We need to share gratitude. Not under our breath, in the privacy of our homes. “Ve-onisa Ve-omarta”- loud and in public, to truly show appreciation for what we have.

Second: We need to shift our thinking. Instead of fixating on all that is inconvenient, frightening or uncomfortable about where we live, we should focus on the positive. Walk Joburg’s streets and you’ll find a whole lot of really decent fellow South Africans (not the corrupt ones who dominate the news). Where else in the world will a beggar smile at you even when you don’t give him a donation?

People balk when I say I’ve walked many times through Wynberg to get to the “other side” on a Shabbos. Yes, it’s scruffier than ‘burbs, but the people all smile and greet you. I always get at least one Shalom (actually that’s anywhere I go) and even once had a Metro Cop smile and wish me “Shabbat Shalom”.

Third: We need to be joyous with what we do have. Someone who lives focused on what’s missing will never be happy or blessed.

When you celebrate the positive in life, you live with blessing at all times. If you are habituated to see the flaws in the systems around you, you’ll find those wherever you go. It always fascinates me how every population has something that they complain bitterly about. Americans moan about Trump, Brits about Brexit, Israelis about Bibi, South Africans about Cyril. All just as bitterly. It reminds me of the saying, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you”.

Imagine if we could import our great-grandparents to show them how we live. They would be mortified to hear us complain. Did they have running water? We do (most of the time). How many of them ever owned a horse, let alone two? If they had wanted to travel, they needed to engage the local wagon driver- or they simply walked to the next town. Most of us have two vehicles in our garages. And we grumble about how the one is so sluggish and how many potholes we have navigate on the way to work.

Our great-grandparents worried about Cossacks and typhoid and we complain about internet speeds and overpriced sushi. Look inside your wardrobe and you’ll find more fashion than their whole Shtetl would have had (and that’s just the shoes).

The key to all brocha is perspective. Gratitude. Simcha. Things that money can’t buy and that emigration can’t solve.

When that farmer brought his Bikkurim, he’d end with a prayer, “Hashem, look down from Your holy abode on High and bless your people Israel”. “Look down” is always used in the Torah as the introduction to misfortune. Except here. When we look at the world with appreciation and gratitude, Hashem transforms misfortune into blessing.

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