Parashat Ki Tavo 5778
It’s a good shopping experience at the main supermarket of Tzfat, but the checkout lines can be slow. The other day we were in a bit of a rush and it seemed like we lucked out – we got in a line with only one person ahead of us. But then I realized that the cashier in that line likes to chat with the customers, recommend sale items, and sign people up for membership to be eligible for sales – she signed us up a year ago. She’s conscientious, she cares about the customers, she seems to be the senior cashier and we should have known better than to get in her line if we’re in a hurry. Sure enough, the customer ahead of us was finished and all packed up, but the cashier’s chatting and making sure she has updated her membership, and she hadn’t and so the cashier offers to do it and is trying to enter all the information on her touch screen but the computer is balky and she’s a slow typist and she’s having to retype and correct and the customer comes around to help and they’re dragging it out and I find myself getting more and more impatient until finally I ask the cashier if maybe the customer could go to the service desk to finish up because we’re in a rush. BIG mistake – and I knew it the moment the words left my mouth. She gets a bonus for signing up members, and after all, chatting is more interesting than ringing up items. The cashier snaps at me that she’s been here all day and didn’t eat lunch yet and it’s not like she’s taking a break; she’s helping a customer. I apologize but the damage was done. Slowly and extra carefully she finishes with the customer, and takes extra time to chat. Then she slowly unwraps a sandwich and takes a few bites and throws a few glances at me while she chews. Eventually she gets around to us. As she finishes checking us through and has made her point very clearly she wishes us a gracious-in-victory Shanah Tovah.
I sure learned my lesson, but not just about supermarket checkout line etiquette. I wondered why I got impatient standing on line, especially when lines are such a common feature of contemporary life – I should know the drill by now. It’s true that someone was waiting for us and we were in a rush, but it was not just that. Standing in line can feel like wasting time, but if it does, then I’m missing something.
In this week’s parashah Moshe Rabbenu lays out before us blessings and curses: blessings if we “listen, really listen to the voice of HaShem your God, to observe to fulfill all His Mitzvot (Dt. 28:1),” but curses if we don’t. If we listen “blessed are you in the city, blessed are you in the field… blessed is your basket and breadboard, blessed are you in your coming and blessed are you in your going… (Dt. 28:3-6).” Everything in our lives will flow smoothly if we “observe HaShem’s mitzvot and walk in His ways (Dt. 28:9). We are promised that these blessing will “come to us and catch us (Dt. 28:2)” – Ibn Ezra explains that they will come to us by themselves, without our effort.
By contrast, if we depart from HaShem’s mitzvot and path, everything in life will become difficult and adversarial, even time: “In the morning you will say would that it were evening and in the evening you will say would that it were morning (28:67).” Time itself will be stripped of meaning, and the present moment empty. Moshe sums up the reason for the curses saying:
Because you did not serve HaShem your God with joy and goodness of heart from the abundance of all (Dt. 28:47).
If I get impatient standing in line, I’m living outside the moment. I’m letting myself get pulled away by distractions and anxieties, and letting time itself get stripped of meaning. I could put the time to good use with a sefer, I could open up the mobile phone, or just be present to the abundance of the moment.
There are other checkout lines we go through in life, including the one mentioned in the Mishnah Rosh HaShanah:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף טז עמוד א
משנה. בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון: …בראש השנה – כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, שנאמר היצר יחד לבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם…
At four periods in the year the world is judged: … on Rosh HaShanah all creatures pass before Him like sheep, as it says ‘He forms their hearts as one, He understands where all their actions lead…
Rashi, based on the exposition of the Gemara, explains that the image is of sheep being counted for taking the tithe of Ma’aser. They are passed through a narrow aisle that only lets them get checked out one by one (18a), and every tenth is set aside. In the Gemara, Rabbah bar bar Chanah adds that even though God checks every individual, all creatures are viewed by God “in one glance.” That’s the meaning of the verse cited in the Mishnah: “He forms their hearts as one.” So, too, on Rosh HaShanah God checks us out one by one, yet all with once glance. No long wait time on the heavenly check-out line. But there’s a deeper point here.
Some years ago a friend brought me to visit the Yeshivah of the Slonimer Hassidim in Meah She’arim on a Shabbat afternoon. We joined in the Seudah Shelishit, which featured hundreds of Hassidim sitting in bleachers around the late Rebbe, Rebbe Shalom Noah Berzovsky, ztz”l, singing nigunei devekut, contemplative melodies for connection with God. The nigunim of Slonim are unique, with no easily-recognizable melody, they sound almost atonal. But they are very precise, and everyone sings together in unison or on the octave, the voices swerving and swooping like mumurations of birds. The Rebbe also gave a devar Torah. At the end of Shabbat the Rebbe went out into the courtyard of the Yeshivah and sat in a chair, and all the Hassidim got into a long line, and then, one by one, they passed in front of the Rebbe, at a distance of about five yards, and as each person passed the Rebbe gave them a look and a nod.
When my friend and I came in front of the Rebbe, the Rebbe motioned to us to come closer, and we stepped up to his chair. My friend, who was well known to the Rebbe, introduced me, and the Rebbe asked what I do, and I mentioned that we had a weekly shiur studying his profound Hassidic Torah commentary Netivot Shalom. Then the Rebbe, who was a petit elderly man with sparkling eyes and great vitality, extended his hand for a handshake. When I took his hand I felt a strong, warm electric current pass up my arm, swirl in circles around my chest and plunge into my heart. It wasn’t a handshake, it was a heart-shake. The Rebbe winked at me.
When the Hassidim of Slonim line up and pass in single file before their Rebbe after Shabbat, they get a look and a nod from the Rebbe, to be acknowledged personally, to give them a feeling of connection as they start the new week. Similarly, on Rosh HaShanah, as we start the new year, we also all line up to pass before HaShem, singly and yet all together, each of us getting a look and a nod, as it were, from HaShem. Yes, the stated theme of the day is judgment, and this could be a moment of anxiety. But at a deeper level each one of us is getting face-time with HaShem Himself, each one of us can feel the affirmation of our being right to the core, a heart-shake from God.
So a little chastising from the senior cashier turns out to be a teachable moment. Rather than getting impatient I could look around and joyfully appreciate the full shopping basket, the full breadboard, the bustling city, the fertile fields, the abundance of all things in the Land of Israel, and appreciate that each of us and all of us together are in line for a wink and a nod from HaShem.