You may have heard me tell this
story before. Once I was at an interfaith
Thanksgiving service, sitting next to a fellow rabbi, listening to the minister
who was giving the message for the evening.
He referred to, “how there is always that one person in church who complains
about everything.” Turning to each
other, without missing a beat the other rabbi and I said at the same time, “they
only have one?”
Ki Tavo, our Torah portion this
week, provides for us an insight into the Jewish love for complaining. In Deuteronomy 29:4 it says, v’lo natan Hashem lachem lev lada’at
v’eynaim lirot v’oznaim lishmoa ad hayom hazeh, “Yet not until today has
the Lord given you a heart to know and eyes to see and ears to hear.”
The Torah commentator Rashi explains
to us what this refers to. Moses gave
the copy of the Torah he had written to the tribe of Levi to keep. The other tribes came to Moses and complained
– why was he giving it only to them and not everyone?
What was Moses’ reaction? Rashi says he rejoiced and then spoke the
words of this verse. Why was Moses
happy? The people, with their complaints,
were showing that they cared about the Torah – they wanted it to be theirs! Sure, they might still be annoying and prone to
whining and all that, but the story here is Moses was able to see past all that
and recognize that the Torah really did matter to the people.
That is perhaps why we Jews do so much complaining, complaints
mean you care – that things matter!
I hope I hear a lot of complaints from you all because it
will mean you are concerned with things.
And if ever I offer a complaint to you, well, I hope it will be for the
There is a beautiful lesson in our Torah
portion, coming from the rule that teaches us we must help our friend’s
stray animals if we see them wandering off, lo
tireh et shor achicha o et seh’oh nidachim, v’hitalamta mehem, hashev t’shivem
l’achicha – don’t see your brother’s ox or sheep go astray and hide from
it, surely you will return them to your brother.”
The Rabbis note that here in the Torah,
we speak of the missing animal of a friend of ours, it even says, brother. Earlier in the Torah we are told much the
same thing, but there, we are told it about our enemy and his missing animal.
So what gives? The Rabbis say, it is quoted like this, one
time saying enemy, the other friend, in order to teach us that in taking on the
obligation of returning the animal, we should further seek to undo whatever
stands between us and make our one-time enemy our friend.
One who fulfills the mitzvah of
returning the lost animal, gains the opportunity to return something else that
was lost also, the broken relationship can be returned to how it was before. While we may not have so much opportunity for
returning lost animals these days, the chance to help someone in need can often
be just the medicine necessary to heal a hurt relationship, I know I have found
that to be the case in my rabbinic work and I suspect others of you might have
as well. You pay the shivah visit or you
say “shabbat shalom” to that one person and suddenly, they aren’t so bad
anymore, and whatever was wrong between you starts to disappear.
So, don’t let the oxen be what throw you
off from learning the lesson here. Had
the Torah been written today I’m sure it would have said “smart phone”
instead. The lesson is the same; we can
restore what is lost in our relationships if we remain willing to respond to
the needs of others, whoever they may be.