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D'var Torah Ki Tavo - Making a Small Change

The Upper School celebrates Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming in/receiving Shabbat) as a campus every Friday morning. The community gathering includes a Dvar Torah (talk about the week's Torah portion) and a performance by students from across the grades. Rebecca Weiss (Grade 10) delivered the D'var Torah on Friday, September 8.

Shabbat Shalom --

Today I'm going to talk about God, grammar and the good life.

I am going to read two sentences. They are identical, but have very different meanings. The only difference between sentence number one and sentence number two is one teeny tiny smudge of a small punctuation mark.

But, as you will see, even one small change, can make a big difference in meaning. This is true in sentences, that is true in the Torah, and it is certainly true in life.

Ok, here we go, listen carefully:

Let's EAT, Grandpa

Let's eat GRANDPA.

Did you hear the difference in meaning? Or how about this sentence?

I like cooking, my family, and my pets.

I like cooking my family and my pets.

Are these people cannibals? No. The crime in the second sentence -- there are no commas.

A similar punctuation problem plays a big role in this week's parshah, Ki Tavo.

In the beginning of this Torah portion, Moshe instructs B'nei Yisrael on the laws of the first fruits. Later in the parsha, God bestows a series of blessings and curses on B'nei Yisrael on Har Grizim and Har Eival.

Then, after dumping 62 pesukim of rapid-fire warning curses on the Israelites -- including boils of Egypt, dry lesions, itchy hemorrhoids and oozing sores -- the tone of the text radically shifts. Moshes says in perek כט pasukim א through ג:

"...אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה׳ לְעֵֽינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְפַרְעֹ֥ה וּלְכָל־עֲבָדָיו וּלְכָל־אַרְצו:

You have seen all the miracles and wonders that God did for you in Egypt.

הַמַּסּוֹת֙ הַגְּדֹלֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָא֖ו עיניך האתת והמפתים הגדלים ההם

And you have seen all the miracles and wonders that God did for you in the desert.

We know that the Israelites constantly failed to appreciate those miracles, and they went on to sin, for example, the sin of the golden calf, the sin of the 12 spies, among other misdeeds. All B'nei Yisrael did those 40 years in the desert, it seems, is complain, complain. It got to be routine: Moshe scolded B'nei Yisrael for 40 years, and God punished them for 40 years.

That's why the next verse is so surprising.

Pasuk ג reads:

ולא־נתן יהוה לכם לב לדעת ועינים לראות ואזנים לשמע עד היום הזה

Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.

That sentence is really confusing. On it's face, the words seem to mean that God did not give B'nei Yisrael the ability to appreciate all those miracles until this very day. It implies that for 40 years B'nei Yisrael lacked the faculties to perceive god's greatness -- they lacked eyes, ears, heart -- and were therefore blameless for all their sins.

But then, why did God punish them so much? If B'nei Yisrael had no ability to understand, why were they always in trouble, in desert detention for 40 years?

Turns out, this mystery has perplexed Jewish scholars for hundreds of years. Abarbanel, a commentator from the 15th century, wasn't prepared to accept the common interpretation of the verse. Abarbanel believed that from the very beginning, B'nei Yisrael had the ability to recognize God's greatness and goodness.

Remember the missing punctuation that meant we were eating Grandpa for dinner and cooking my pets for lunch? Abarbanel suggests the same thing happened here.

The problem is with the grammar, not with God!

We've got the Torah punctuation wrong. In fact, we should read the "eyes, ears and heart" sentence as a question, rather than as a statement of fact. So it should sound like this: You saw the miracles in Egypt. You saw the miracles in the desert. Why didn't you appreciate all those miracles? Didn't the lord give you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear??? Abarbanel added a question mark!

The answer to Moshe's question is, of course -- yes! -- the Lord did give you eyes, ears, and a heart. Moshe is reminding B'nei Yisrael that that from the very beginning, even when they were fresh out of slavery, they had the ability, and responsibility, to appreciate all the good things that God had done for them.

It's all about PUNCTUATION - one small change. By changing one punctuation mark, turning a period into a question mark, the Abarbanel transforms the meaning of the verse from saying the Jews were not responsible, to saying that were completely responsible. And therefore punishable. Heh, heh.

We, too, can make one small change in our behavior that can make a big difference. ALL the difference. We can change the punctuation that marks our lives. Instead of writing it down though, we write it in our head and in our hearts, with our attitude.It's all about attitude. With the right attitude, you can turn an average day into an adventurous day, just like changing the grammar in a sentence from a period to an exclamation point. Next time you are dissatisfied with a series of events, trying punctuating them differently with a new attitude.

If a teacher assigns a big project, don't focus on the workload, underline with a big fat yellow highlighter the opportunity to take a risk and to try something creative. If you don't ace a test, rewrite the failure as an opportunity to rework your study habits. Maybe, in the future, put some parenthesis around all that time you spent binge watching How I Met Your Mother.

And if a friend asks for help with something, instead of responding with a non-committal elipse -- I'll be there for you.... Dot, dot, dot -- leaving some doubt, you should express your commitment to your friend with a firm period -- I'll be there for you. Full stop. Period. What power in punctuation, how the meaning of friendship, Torah, and life, can change with one simple dot.

Shabbat shalom! Exclamation point!

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