What really counts: It’s who and how we are that really matters

Rabbi Marc Belgrad

By Rabbi Marc Belgrad, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8)

The Psalmist of ancient times said: Limnot yamenu keyn hoda v’navi l’vav chochma – Teach us to count our days that we might gain wisdom. From that time forward, our tradition has focused on a crucial spiritual question: what is it that makes our days count?

Looking at the culture around us, we might conclude that what counts are things that can be counted. How much money do you have? How many square feet in your home? How large is your business, how many clients does it have, what is its profit? How many times did you post, how many likes did you get, how many friends do you have?

Size is mistaken for substance. This does not surprise in a culture that celebrates celebrity, in which talented musicians, athletes, performers receive recompense far beyond what we might term the value of what they add to our society.

But that depends on what one thinks counts.

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo – and Maimonides’ comment to a portion of it – we learn something about what counts.

“When you enter the land that Adonai your G-d is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it; You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil which you harvest from the land that Adonai your G-d is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where Adonai your G-d will choose to establish the Divine name.

“You shall go to the priest who is in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before Adonai your G-d that I have entered the land that Adonai swore to our ancestors to assign us. (Deuteronomy 26: 1-3).

The recitation makes perfect sense for that first generation, departed from the slavery of Egypt and burnished through the wilderness to settle in the land.

But in perpetuity? And what about those who join the Jewish people later on, who come to us from another tradition or no tradition at all? How can people who were not born to it – who choose Judaism and the life it denotes – recite the words “…that Adonai swore to our ancestors to assign us”? After all, our ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; Sarah; Rebecca; Rachel; Leah – are not his or her ancestors.

Maimonides addressed this question directly. Obadiah, a convert to Judaism, wrote Maimonides asking whether or not he could recite words of prayer such as “Our G-d and G-d of our fathers” when they were not, in fact, his fathers.

Maimonides responds “You should recite them all, just as they are formulated in the liturgy. Change nothing! Just as every native-born Israelite prays and recites benedictions, so you should do…” He continues by pointing out that Abraham brought many people to G-d and thus they became “his children”: “He brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence, teaching and instructing them . . . Consequently, everyone who accepts Judaism . . . is of the disciples of Abraham, our father . . . they all belong to his household . . . You should therefore say ‘Our G-d and the G-d of our fathers’ since Abraham is your father.”

Maimonides brings also as proof the Torah law which instructs the Israelites that there shall be one law for the nation and for aliens who join themselves to the nation; “just as you are, so shall the alien be before Adonai.”

Genetics don’t count.  Biology doesn’t matter. Race is immaterial.

Who you are is not determined by the parents who gave birth to you. Who you are is not delineated by the nation into which you are born. Evil knows no boundaries, be they racial, national or ethnic.  Likewise, goodness.

There has been a recrudescence these past years of one of the most imbecilic, pernicious of human ideas: that one’s race is indicative of something substantial. That the color of one’s skin counts. That people who are not “white” are somehow less than those who are. That those who are different are deficient. That they aren’t as smart, they aren’t as moral, they aren’t as . . . chosen.

People are confused about what really counts.

We are not determined by destiny. We are not only actors on the human stage but we possess also the power to script our lines our lives.

Choice counts.  Intentionality matters. Actions are material.

Dr. King reminded us: “It is the content of our character, not the color of our skin.”

The prophet Micah asks rhetorically “What does Adonai require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with G-d.” It is not your pedigree with which G-d is concerned, it is your conduct.

When we think about what counts – what really counts – as we do in this month of Elul and throughout the awe-inspiring days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we consider the choices we make and the outcomes they lead to.

Have we acted with honesty and fairness? Have we pursued justice for others?

Have we loved others with the mercy we desire for ourselves? Have we given others the benefit of the doubt?

Have we walked humbly, conforming our acts to the ideals that we believe G-d has set for us?

Limnot yamenu keyn hoda v’navi l’vav chochma – Teach us to recognize what really counts each day and, when we do, we will gain wisdom.

Rabbi Marc J. Belgrad is rabbi of B’Chavana Congregation.

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