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Parashat Ki Tavo 5776: Taking responsibility

A fascinating character in the Talmud is Rabbi Elishah Ben Avuya, also known as “Aher”, the “other”, because he became a heretic after being one of the greatest sages of the people of Israel. He was a friend and study partner of Rabbi Akiva and he was the master of Rabbi Meir, who according to tradition is the anonymous first voice in the Mishnah. The main voice and opinion in the Mishnah was that of Rabbi Meir and his master, his teacher, was Elishah Ben Avuya. We are talking about that guy. So the obvious question is of course what happened? What pushed him to leave behind the Torah and the commandments? In the Talmud there are a few different stories trying to explain this. Maybe the most famous one is about the four rabbis that went into the Pardes, the orchard, a symbol for some kind of strong mystical experience. In any case, I want to bring a different story that is related to our Parashah. The rabbis from the time of the Mishnah knew the whole Torah by heart… we don’t, so let’s first remember two sources, one from the book of Shmot and one from Devarim, from our Parashah: From Shmot, we are talking about one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land which Hashem your God is giving you”. The one from Devarim is: “If, as you are walking along, you happen to see a bird’s nest in a tree or on the ground with chicks or eggs, and the mother bird is sitting on the chicks or the eggs, you are not to take the mother with the chicks. You must let the mother go, but you may take the chicks for yourself; so that things will go well with you, and you will prolong your life”. What is the common element in both verses? A long life. Now let’s continue to the Talmudic story from the Tractate of Kiddushin: “Thus: in connection with honouring parents it is written, that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee. In reference to the dismissal of the nest it is written, that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days. Now, if one’s father said to him, ‘Ascend to the loft and bring me young birds,’ and he ascends to the loft, dismisses the dam and takes the young, and on his return falls and is killed — where is this man’s happiness and where is this man’s prolonging of days? (…) Now, what happened with Aher? Some say, he saw something of this nature”. According to this tradition, Rabbi Elishah Ben Avuya saw this and simply everything fell down for him. In this story, as in others, it seems that the problem is that he cannot deal with the existence of evil in the World, that both good and bad come from a God that is merciful and kind. His heresy was to believe in two powers and to dismiss the commandments. Still, just for those of you that like the happy endings, according to another two stories in the Talmud, when he died he still went to the Garden of Eden and was reconciled with the Judaism. In any case, his story is interesting and compelling because it reminds us of many people that have a lot of trouble with the tension between religion and the way of the world. There are people that cannot accept, for example, the academic biblical criticism and the idea that not the whole Torah came from Heaven, because if it is so then why would I do a bris to my son, being such a barbaric act that I only do because I believe that God Himself is telling me so through the Torah. On the other hand, people like Rabbi Elishah see the evil done by human beings in the World and decide that there is no God. This both extremes are examples of a lack of responsibility. The one that can’t believe in a Judaism that is not dictated from Heaven in every detail can’t take responsibility over his actions, deal with the unknown and the complexity of accepting that not every element of our faith and religion is historical true and still it is important to continue being Jewish and keeping the commandments. The other blames God for the evil in the World, when people choose to be evil. That’s Cain saying to God: “Am I my brother’s guardian?”. I killed, but it is your fault for not stopping me. That’s such a childish approach. Friends, Elishah Ben Avuya was transformed into “Aher”, the Other, because he was not able to deal with the responsibility of taking his own life in his hands and understand that theology is not only reward and punishment, but something much more complex. We are approaching the High Holidays and we must take responsibility over our actions, to be brave and deal with those things hard for us, both physical and spiritual. To understand that it us up to us at the end. We must choose Judaism and our tradition every day again. It is not an easy challenge, but only we can be successful on it.

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