By Rabbi Lawrence M. Pinsker
Fourteen years ago, New York journalist A.J. Jacobs’s book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” became a bestseller and eventually a laugh-track TV series. Jacobs turned the Bible into a one-note joke by living the text “literally.” In a singular comedic achievement — hey, let’s offer credit where credit is due! — he stoked the ridicule of modern secularists, vindicated the textual ignorance and indifference of many contemporary Jews and confirmed some anti-Jewish views of contemporary biblical literalists, both Jewish and Christian.
The Bible as a work of complex emotions and aspirations intended to offer human beings comfort, healing and strategies for enduring the inescapable existential crises in real life was reduced to a tedious sitcom joke.
This week’s portion, Ki Tavo, shares a modest snapshot of a beautiful life and also a terrifying contrast, a lengthy look at the fragility of that blessed, placid life human beings longed for throughout our existence.
That’s worth playing for laughs any year, isn’t it? Why would anyone ever take seriously the possibility of recurring killer diseases, pandemics, threats to the earth on whose well-being everything alive depends or shattering social covenants that once brought us together as an agudah achat — a united assembly — dedicated to helping each other survive disasters arising from the physical universe and from human actions? Where’s the humor in taking the grounded truths of our accumulated wisdom seriously?
In “This Business of Living: Diaries, 1935-1950,” the Italian novelist and essayist Cesare Pavese wrote, “One stops being a child when one realizes that telling one’s troubles does not make it better.”
When bad things happen, we must draw upon our finest resources to respond — and our finest resources remain now, as in ancient days, families and communities and personal self-control that limits panic and unreason in favor of thoughtful action. But the beginning for Jews is always to recognize that we are not powerless when we address even the most difficult of times. There is always dignity possible as we face the consequences of our actions and the macro- and micro-upheavals of the physical universe.
The fall holiday cycle, including the Sabbaths before and after, overflow with lessons on living with and prevailing over human imperfections — newsfeed from our troubled world stripped to existential basics, scattered lives, tottering politics, vulnerable health and self-created instabilities. The self-evident truths of the Bible call for our attention. If not now, when?
Rabbi Lawrence M. Pinsker is currently serving Adat Chaim Synagogue in