Why be good? In the case of the Jewish people, it’s perhaps the greatest existential question we struggle with. We are presented with a Torah full of mitzvot, an oral Torah and a Shulchan Aruch that lay out the instructions for living Jewishly, and countless traditions that tell us what it means to be am segulah, God’s cherished people. We are encouraged to live justly, follow the commandments, observe halacha, and do what God and the Jewish tradition tell us to. The warm and fuzzy justification is that our lives are enriched by such conduct. The scary answer is that we are told there are severe consequences for not doing so.
As contemporary Jews we exist in a time of, for lack of a better term, reduced faith. When you read through Mishna Yoma and follow the structure of the Yom Kippur service in the days of the Temple, it’s essential to remember that in those times, people’s faith and fear on the Day of Atonement was palpable. Imagine the hope, uncertainty, and tension in the air as the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the entire nation. Today, while Yom Kippur is an emotional holiday, the degree to which many Jews experience that visceral reality and unease during Yom Kippur is much less intense. People are, for the most part, a lot less fearful of God and of consequences than in the days of old.
This week, Parashat Ki Tavo contains a timeless example of consequences being presented to the Jewish people in the tochecha reading in chapter 28. This week, the Levites read out a fifty-four verse explanation of the calamities that will befall the Jewish people for not obeying God’s mitzvot once they enter the land. They are as specific as they are frightening: pestilence, tuberculosis, drought, skin inflammations, plagues and diseases, and a return to Egyptian slavery are all described as the consequences for disobedience.
As you listen to Ki Tavo tomorrow or read through it at home, the essential take-home for me is that from the very beginning of our faith, we are instructed to fear God, to have yir’at hashem. As we enter the end of Elul and the beginning of the High Holidays, I’ll just suggest that we all try to remember what it meant to our ancestors to have such awe and fear, and how we can access that feeling over the next several weeks.