You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Ki Tavo.
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb AJR/CA
Last week, we read Ki Tetzei (Going Out), and this week we read Ki Tavo (Coming home). Going out in the world can mean growth and individuation, but it can also mean danger, tragedy, and evil destruction. The tragedy, anguish, and pain of the families whose men, women and children were mercilessly blown up in Afghanistan is inconsolable. We cry as a nation and as individuals who bear witness to this barbarity which has sent hundreds of innocent human beings to their deaths. Danger, and darkness remains part of our reality even in the month of Elul, a month known as one of love and return to our highest selves.
How do we deal with this tension of opposites, that are part of our reality, both in the outside world and within our own hearts? We cannot solve this dilemma simply by rational, mind deliberations, as the mind is often filled with rationalizations, and not fully accurate. We must recognize that the mysteries of the universe, and the behaviors of human beings, are beyond simple analysis and deliberations. Our bodies, our hearts, our gut are sometimes more reliable, in discovering when something is terribly wrong, and may be the place where the deepest heart truths can be discovered and acknowledged.
Let us tern to Elul and our parsha. The month of Elul is an acronym from the verse in ‘Song of Songs,’ Ani L’dodi, V’Dodi Li,’ (“I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me”). It is the time set to ‘return’ to our ‘Beloved Creator,’ and to the Soul within during the 40 days from the first day of Elul through Yom Kippur. We blow the Shofar every morning and are called to our responsibilities, to our gratitude, and to the return to actualize our unique destiny in our world. We read Psalm 27, move from despair to awe, from Judgement to compassion, and our Sages tell us G-d waits with love for our return to the path of introspection, insight, feeling, strengthening the depths of our commitment through emotional heightening, and finally committed action to elevate our world through our traditions.
So how do we return to achieve this Teshuva (return)? What must we do? How do we return to this love, the love that Hashem has for us? How do we find self-love and gratitude? How do we move from despair and the darkness within, to the great awe that constantly surrounds us when we are open to it? How do we move from self-judgment to self-compassion? The Rabbis set out a course for us during these 40 days (40 is the minimum number required for ripening says the Kabala; just as the Jews spent 40 years in the deserts, and Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai). The path of ‘Return’ created at this time has three ingredients, Teshuva (intense repentance), Tefila, (prayer) and Tzedaka (charity). Each of these dynamics help us to move from judgment to compassion. Teshuva moves us through introspection, commitment to action, self-forgiveness, and a natural movement from judgment to compassion,; Tefila, through the expression of our emotions through prayer; this deep emotional dive into sincere prayer softens us up to a movement from judgement to compassion, it gets us in touch with our heart, and informs us to trust our gut, and Tzedaka, giving charity and interaction with others through a process of giving, moves us from judgment to compassion and knowledge of the other. (The Talmud in Berachot teaches us that the one prayer that G-d makes is “May my anger be overcome by my compassion,” and says if G-d dwelt in anger and judgment in these (days who would survive).
Thus, our pious Sages spent hours during Elul, sitting in group prayer settings, to arouse their deepest yearnings to return, listening to rousing songs, that opened their hearts, and heard the tears of sorrow and joy of their brothers and sisters who joined them in these special prayer settings during Elul. The Shofar was blown, and the committed communities did the work of Elul returning to their soul and the G-d who loves them. They also made extra efforts to give increased charity to the poor during this season and were extremely careful in acting with the highest sense of ethics and kindness to others.
Our parsha this week instructs us as well of one of the most fundamental attributes necessary for this ‘Return’ through the ritual of bringing the offering of the ‘Bikurim,’ (First Fruits). The blessing of the First Fruits is an act of GRATITUDE. It teaches us that the trait of GRATITUDE is one of the most essential characteristics to return to the beauty of G-d’s world and G-d’s love. We are commanded to bless G-d in gratitude for all that the Creator has bestowed upon us; our first fruits, the freshness of life, the truth of newness, and renewal. The new harvest of G-d ripens within us every year and, indeed, every day. The nature of life, its constant ‘Change’ opens us up to the faith that growth and serendipitous energies are always ‘Present!’ (As the Psalmist says: (Psalm 30), “In the evening I go to bed in tears, and in the morning, I wake up with joy”). This discipline of gratitude, of recognizing all our gifts is the secret to self-love. Alternatively, if we allow our own self-criticalness that we project upon Hashem to dominate us we feel that we are so bad that Hashem cannot possibly forgive us, so we don’t even think of doing Teshuva, or returning. Our guilt and shame trips us up and we cannot conceive of a mercy great enough to pardon our sins. As the Gemora in Yoma 39A says: ‘Sin dulls the heart of human beings.” Self-flagellation, the attitude of ‘An eye for an eye’, says Gandhi, ‘makes the whole world blind!’
The first fruits are concrete proof that the actuality of freedom and achievement has taken place. The gift of G-d and the toil of humans have combined in producing the fruits of the land and gives us a natural reason for rejoicing. When we can live from this level of gratitude and G-d’s eternal Providence, we become joyous and free.
Let us each take a moment of recognizing one thing we are grateful for and make it a practice each day of Elul through Yom Kippur. It takes practice, commitment, indeed, 40 days of teshuva practice to transform ourselves from the state of’ habitual wanting to the state of habitual having’; recognizing and accepting the first fruits that have been given to us every day.
Our parsha continues with the importance of finding joy and gratitude in our lives in the following verse, an astounding verse found in Deut., Ch. 28, verse 47. This verse is the reason given for all the curses found in our parsha! All the suffering attributed to our reality is for the sole reason that “YOU DID NOT SERVE THE LORD YOUR G-D WITH JOY AND GRATITUDE OF HEART WITH ALL THE ABUNDANCE THAT YOU HAVE RECEIVED.(“TACHAT ASHER LO AVADITA ET HASHEM ELOKECHA B’SIMCHA U’VTOV LEIVAV MAIROV KOL”). Amazing! Not only are we required to do the mitzvot, but to do them with JOY! There are a total of 676 words in the verses of the curses in our parsha. This is the amount found when 26 is multiplied by 26 (G-d’s name Y’H’V’H=26). Thus, the Mystics declare that within the curses are found G-d’s compassion, awakening us to do Teshuva, to return to G-d and the joy of creation. If we accept the curses as a learning experience, they become a source of joy as well; all of life, whatever is before us, is a learning experience! This is the recipe of G-d’s blessing for achieving joy and gratitude in our lives; the faith that all that is before us is a blessing, it necessitates an affirmation of acceptance (the ‘volitional affirmation of the obligatory’-Rank) .So let us practice the trait of gratitude, of return to the One who loves us, and to return to the G-d within ourselves. If we do not love ourselves, we do not see the love in others, we cannot imagine that love exists in the world. Because it is not part of our own experience. So let us work on self-love, on G-d’s love so we can see the love around us and become whole again. We are what we see, and we see what we are. Many of us are cynical because we have never met anyone who is truly holy. We don’t believe that it is possible to be that way because it is not part of our inner experience. But if we work on ourselves, find joy in the elevated teachings of Scripture, of blooming nature, and the grace of the human smile we will begin to see the majestic beauty of the world as well and find the joy demanded (expected) of us. At times like this when tragedy abounds it is most challenging to do so. We must dig down deep into our faith, and allow this darkness to deepen our compassion, to move away from judgment and return to the love that is our salvation; it is in the echo of Elul that we are reminded that love and “Return’ is the elixir to create healing and consolation in our sometimes-shocking world of both confounding mystery and sublime grandeur.
May you each have a Shabbat Shalom, a day of respite, and renewal, regaining faith and commitment in the days ahead,
Blessings and Love,
From The Hebrew College
Our Evolving Relationship To Prayer
By Rabbi Brian Besser
Parashat Ki Tavo (Exodus 26:1-29:8)
During upcoming High Holiday services, we will shortly confront one of the most theologically disturbing prayers in all Jewish liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef, which begins: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decreed . . . who shall live and who shall die . . . . ” One year, a congregant, Jen Richler, came to me to discuss the spiritual disaffection that the Unetaneh Tokef provoked in her after the untimely death of her young mother in a freak accident. She refused to utter any longer a prayer that implied “God had taken my mother’s life because she hadn’t sufficiently repented, prayed, and/or performed righteous acts.” (Jen, a freelance writer, compiled her reflections into an article for Tablet, “Why I Stopped Saying the Unetaneh Tokef, and Why I’m Ready To Say It Again,” published in 2014.)
The difficulties generated by the Unetaneh Tokef apply to prayer in general, of which the Unetaneh Tokef is but one particularly problematic example. Should I recite a prayer if I disagree with its meaning? If a prayer upsets me but I say it anyway, am I a hypocrite? To whom am I praying? Why should I pray at all?
The Torah provides only a smattering of fixed liturgy (most Jewish prayers were composed centuries later during the Rabbinic period), but one example appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. While presenting the first fruits of the harvest to the priest, the Israelite farmer is supposed to recite a formulaic declaration of gratitude that is worth examining closely. The text contains subtle shifts in language that guide the speaker along a path of increasing engagement with the Jewish people, Jewish tradition, and God.
First, the farmer says to the priest:
I acknowledge this day before Adonai your God that I have entered the land that Adonai swore to our ancestors to give us. (Deuteronomy 28: 3)
This is a little peculiar, because Adonai is not merely “Adonai your God,” the God of the priest, but the farmer’s God as well! Next, the farmer continues:
My father . . . went down to Egypt . . . and became a populous nation. The Egyptians oppressed us . . . and we cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and Adonai heard our plea . . . and brought us out of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 28:5-8)
In this middle section, the language invoking God has shifted; the speaker no longer refers to “Adonai your God” but “Adonai, the God of our ancestors.” Additionally, the declaration, largely formulated until now in the first-person singular (“My father went down to Egypt”), suddenly shifts to the first-person plural (“The Egyptians oppressed us, and we cried to Adonai, and Adonai heard our plea and brought us out of Egypt”). What’s more, the declaration’s formulation makes the speaker identify with earlier generations, because the events it specifies did not happen to the speaker directly but took place long before.
The farmer concludes:
God has brought us to this place and given us this land . . . Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Adonai, have given me. (Deuteronomy 28:9-10)
In this final section, the grammatical formulation reverts from first-person plural (“God has brought us to this place and given us this land”) back to first-person singular (“I bring the first fruits which You have given me.”) More spectacularly, the speaker no longer casts God onto the official religious representative with the expression “Adonai your God,” and has even progressed beyond the middle ground of admitting the God of yesteryear with the expression, “Adonai, the God of our ancestors.” The speaker now comes to address God as an ongoing Presence in the speaker’s own life: “You, Adonai.”
The progression in the textual formulation of the farmer’s ritual declaration in Ki Tavo can serve as a blueprint for our evolving relationship to fixed prayer in general, especially for those of us who start from a place of deep alienation or skepticism. At first, we may relate to the words in the prayer book, or to organized religion as a whole, in terms of “Adonai your God.” We might say to ourselves: “This stuff is fine for Rabbis, pious folk, and the ones at services who seem to be able to utter these words straightforwardly week after week, but they’re not for me.”
If we don’t reject the received text out of hand but stick with it long enough, we may allow our perspective to shift until we are at least able to admit the power of tradition. It’s no longer “Adonai your God” but “Adonai the God of our ancestors.” We can recite these words even if we don’t personally subscribe to them, because, by vocalizing the exact phraseology uttered by Jews everywhere for centuries, we link ourselves to the Jewish people across all time and space. Thus, the language of prayer shifts from first-person singular to first-person plural.
If we persevere by struggling with the implications of the text itself, we may eventually mold a personal relationship with the words on the page. It’s at that point that we can call upon the subject of our address with sincerity and integrity as “Adonai my God.” The language of prayer reverts to first-person singular, because each one of us can now genuinely assert: “I claim these words for myself.”
It turns out that my congregant Jen progressed through the three stages outlined above in her own evolving relationship with the Unetaneh Tokef. At first, she rejected the prayer altogether. Later on, she was able to admit the emotional power of communal ritual, reciting the common language of fixed prayer even if it didn’t resonate with her personally. However, as a professional writer who prized the principle of intellectual integrity, Jen ultimately did not come to terms with the Unetaneh Tokef until she unearthed an interpretation of its actual words that she could embrace as her own. (Specifically, the prayer’s conclusion did not imply that God was punishing Jen’s mother for failure to repent, pray, or perform righteous acts, but, rather, that these activities can help us transcend life’s many tragedies, including death, and perhaps even transform them into blessing.)
This last leap—appropriating communal prayer for ourselves—is surely the most challenging, as well as the most rewarding. Each one of us will take away a different message. That’s the thing about Judaism: it is an undogmatic religion that comprises as many pathways as practitioners.
Rabbi Arthur Green relates that he once saw the following bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” He knew immediately the driver couldn’t be Jewish. The Jewish bumper sticker would say: “God said it. I believe it. Now let’s talk about what it might mean.”
Rabbi Green’s observation about Torah, which never prescribed one authoritative meaning but was always multifariously interpreted, also holds true regarding traditional liturgy. We are not supposed to remain passive consumers of the received text. Judaism demands much more of us—active reflection, involvement and struggle.
At High Holiday services this year, if you find yourself indifferent or even antagonistic to what you read in the prayer book, consider this. Maybe the words on the page are merely the jumping off point. Maybe the true prayer is the one that emerges from the heart after you have argued with its words, cast them aside, and picked them up once again, but this time in your own voice.
From Reform Judaism.org
The Dramatic Effects of Sound and Silence
Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
D’VAR TORAH BY: CANTOR ELIZABETH SACKS
In the story of Elijah, this classic text describes the prophet’s encounter with God:
“There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound [kol d’mamah dakah].” (I Kings 19:11-12)
The sound of silence—or close to it. The power of the soft whisper. The energy of the absence of sound. Jewish tradition, and the Torah specifically, uses many examples of the drama that can be achieved with sound, from the thunder of Sinai to the silence of Aaron facing the death of his sons. Sound, and the lack of sound, call us to attention.
Parashat Ki Tavo plays the concept of sound in a variety of ways. Toward the beginning of the portion, both sound and the lack of sound are used to emphasize importance to the Israelite community.
“Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Eternal your God: Heed the Eternal your God and observe the divine commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you this day. Thereupon Moses charged the people, saying: After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people of Israel: Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by the Eternal, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.—And all the people shall respond, Amen.” (Deut.27:9-15; emphasis is mine).
In the span of these few verses, Moses commands both silence and increased volume as a way to highlight key concepts.
But Parashat Ki Tavo is most famous for another striking contrast in sound—one that involves not the words of the text itself, but how that text is read or chanted aloud in our contemporary communities of practice. Deuteronomy 28:15-68 is known as the tocheichah, the “rebuke.” This section contains a long list of curses that will befall the Israelites if we betray our promise to uphold our side of our covenant with God. Although this list of curses is certainly not the only place in the Torah that admonishes the Israelites for potentially bad behavior, this particular list (together with another similar list in Leviticus 26) is so long and so severe, that the practice is to read these verses quickly and quietly.
Where does this tradition come from, and what does this performance practice signal to or trigger for those of us in the congregation? The Talmud already marks these verses as ones to be handled specially and carefully. In M’gillah 31b, we learn that the lists of curses cannot be interrupted: they cannot be split into two aliyot and read by two different people:
On fast days the congregation reads the portion of blessings and curses (Leviticus, chapter 16), and one may not interrupt the reading of the curses by having two different people read them. Rather, one person reads all of them. The Gemara asks: From where are these matters derived? Why does one not interrupt the reading of the curses? Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Gamda said that Rabbi Asi said: For the verse states: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be weary of His correction” (Proverbs 3:11). If one makes a break in the middle of the curses, it appears as if he loathes rebuke (William Davidson Talmud translation; bolded selections are in the original).
Later on the page, we learn that this practice of not interrupting is required for the Leviticus curses, but only suggested for the Deuteronomy curses:
Rav Huna said … with regard to the curses that are recorded in Deuteronomy, one may interrupt them by having two different people read them. (ibid.)
Nonetheless, the principle remains the same: There is something about a list of curses that requires us to pronounce them aloud in a particular way.
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, a summary of the Shulchan Aruch written by Rabbi Joseph Karo, introduces the additional concept of a shift in dynamics:
The curses contained in parshas Bechukosai and in parshas Ki Savo should be read without interruption (M’gillah 31). Interrupting would make it appear as though we do not wish to accept Divine admonition. … And also the curses in parshas Bechukosai and parshas Ki Savo should be read in a low voice. … And in parshas Ki Savo, [the verse] Leyira es Hashem hanichbad [to fear the honored Name] until the end of the verse should be read in a loud voice and thereafter in a low voice until Ve’ein koneh [and there is no one to buy]. … and the reason is to show that they were regretful. Whatever is read in a low voice should be read at least [loud enough] for the congregation to hear the voice, otherwise they have not fulfilled their duty of reading [the Torah]. (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 78:4; Rabbi Avrohom Davis, trans. [Metsudah Pub., 1996).
Here, the law code makes clear not only that we should read the curses quietly, but also that we should punctuate the recitation by returning to a regular or loud voice during the sections that reinforce positive associations—such as the middle and end Deuteronomy 28:58, which reference the name of God with reverence. According to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, it is not enough for us to approach this passage simply with a passive gloss on the meaning of the curses; we also must engage in ritual theater to emphasize and enact our emotional connections to this text.
What are we trying to communicate with all of this acoustic dramatic interpretation? How does this sudden decrease in volume make us feel? What does this practice of chanting quietly with occasional contrasts in sound communicate to us as we engage with the words of this portion?
Remorse, regret, and reverence
Both the Talmud and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch give us initial direction: remorse, regret, and reverence for the Eternal. For these texts, the quiet chanting mimics our emotional height—we feel low when we are sorry. In addition, our abrupt hush signals our willingness and eagerness to listen and connect with God, despite our infractions.
God is a patient teacher
Just as a parent calmly explains the dangers and the consequences of missteps, so too does God quietly inform us of impending repercussions. Through this interpretation of the whispered chant, we reinforce our love for and attachment to the Eternal; we mitigate the harshness of the decrees with mimicked gentleness. For as we learn in B’reishit Rabbah 54:3, Rabbi Yosi ben Chanina said: “A love without reproof is no love.”
We should not tempt fate
For some, the practice of the quiet tones is almost akin to apotropaic magic—the practice of warding away evil with signs, symbols, and rituals. In this understanding, the near silence is a protection, a community sanctioned safety ritual to distance ourselves from both the sins and the consequences listed in this portion.
Although each of these interpretations of our hushed recitation emphasizes a different dimension of our response to the tocheichah, in many ways the contrast of sound is a teacher in itself. The sudden silence calls us to attention, jolts us out of regularity just as much as the shofar rouses us from our slumber. The dramatic drop in volume commands us to be alert and aware. Even as—and perhaps especially as—we recount the potential consequences of the choices we make, actions we take in our lives, we must make room in our collection of daily noise for the still, small voice, the soft, murmuring sound—the kol d’mamah dakah.
From Rabbi David Ingber
From Reconstructing Judaism
The Inner Witness
By Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
Arur makeh re’ehu ba’sateir – v’amar kol ha’am “Amen”
אָר֕וּר מַכֵּ֥ה רֵעֵ֖הוּ בַּסָּ֑תֶר וְאָמַ֥ר כָּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃
Cursed be the one who strikes down their fellow in secret – and all the people shall say, “Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27:24)
In Ki Tavo, Moses instructs the Children of Israel in the details of some rituals that they are to perform once they have entered the land. Chapter 27 describes a communal reaffirmation of the covenant that the twelve tribes are to undertake. They are to gather in the northern city of Shechem, where Jacob had settled long ago. Shechem sits in a valley between two hills, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Six tribes are to gather on the slopes of Ebal, and six on the slopes of Gerizim. The Levites are to build an altar, and erect plastered pillars on which the words of the Torah will be inscribed. The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice a series of curses that will befall the people if they do not uphold the covenant, and a series of blessings that will accrue to them if they obey.
Some readers might notice how anomalous this description is from many other passages in the Torah. For example, didn’t the Children of Israel already have tablets inscribed with the Torah? Why did they now need plastered pillars? And what are they doing on the sacred mountains in Shechem? Will not Jerusalem be the eternal center of the covenant? These and many other inconsistencies in the Torah lead scholars to theorize about the differing traditions of the northern and southern tribes of Israel – the northern tribes with their center and holy mountain in Shechem, and the southern tribes with their center and holy mountain in Jerusalem. These competing traditions were ultimately woven together in the final version of the Torah that we hold today.
That said, I wish to focus on the dramatic ritual itself. The twelve tribes are arrayed on opposite slopes, and the Levites proclaim twelve prohibitions, followed by a communal “Amen”. The number twelve would appear to parallel the number of tribes, and continue the symmetry of the entire description, but as I read the passage I asked myself, out of all the mitzvot in the Torah, why are these twelve placed together here?
Listen to the prohibitions:
27:15) Cursed be anyone who makes a graven image, and sets it up in secret – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
16) Cursed be the one who insults father or mother – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
17) Cursed be the one who moves a neighbor’s landmark – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
18) Cursed be the one who misdirects a blind person on the way – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
19) Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
Then follow several prohibitions against incestuous relationships, followed by
24) Cursed be the one who strikes down a fellow in secret – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
25) Cursed be the one who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
26) Cursed be whoever will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.
Upon my first reading, this collection of “Thou Shalt Not’s” appeared random. But then I noticed a common thread: all of these transgressions can be performed in secret. Each one is something a person could get away with: Hiding a graven image, murdering someone in a dark alley, taking money under the table, engaging in illicit sex, misdirecting a blind person, moving a landmark in the dark of night…who will ever know?
It appears the Children of Israel are being directed here to affirm a higher level of moral responsibility. They are being asked to become people of conscience. One level of moral decision-making is based on what would happen to you if you got caught. You don’t want to look bad. You don’t want to be punished or shamed or ruin your reputation, so you avoid transgression. This external focus is important, especially when it reinforces upright behavior. But an ethically mature person has internalized that witness. That person no longer determines his or her behavior on whether someone else is watching, because the ethically mature person is already and always watching him or herself, and assessing the rightness of the action at hand.
I think that upon Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim the Children of Israel are being recruited into a higher and more mature level of moral behavior. As they enter the Promised Land, they will not be able to build a trustworthy community unless each one of them is able to monitor their own moral choices. Each person must carry a witness within, and take responsibility for his or her own actions whether or not anyone else will ever know.
This is a timely teaching as the High Holy Days approach. We are each called upon to do a cheshbon nefesh, a rigorous self-accounting at this time of year. We are asked to assess whether we have harmed anyone, whether we need to make amends and offer apologies to others whose lives we have touched. Let’s not separate our account sheet between overt and hidden transgressions. I believe our Torah portion is reminding us that, for a person of conscience, there are no hidden transgressions, since we ourselves are doing our utmost to be honest witnesses of our own behavior, and to hold ourselves to a high standard. Amen to that!
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Ki Tavo
By: Rabbi Gail Labovitz
Since the high holidays and Sukkot will be upon us soon, let’s talk this week about springtime holidays… No, really – as you’ll see in a moment I’m actually quite serious about this.
One of the most familiar verses of this week’s parashah is famous for the way in which it has long been creatively (mis)quoted in Jewish liturgy, that is, in a crucial ceremony of the Jewish calendar. In (transliterated) Hebrew it reads:
“Arami oved avi” (Deut. 26:5)
I leave it untranslated for the moment because it is not a simple set of words to translate, but more significantly because how one translates it relates to the context in which one says it. It is made up of only three words, two nouns (Arami, avi) and a form of the Hebrew verb “a.v.d.” “Arami” – Aramean, “avi” – my father. Presumably, one of these nouns must be the (grammatical) subject of this sentence, while the other might be the object. As for “oved,” this word could function here as either the verb (what was done) or as a kind of adjective, as “to be” in the present tense (e.g., “is” and “are”) does not have distinct forms in biblical Hebrew and is almost always implied by the context and content of the sentence. And one more complication: this root “a.v.d.” has multiple meanings. It can have the sense of “to perish, be ruined, be destroyed,” and also “to be loss, strayed.”
If this phrase rings a bell for you, it is likely because you heard this past spring – and many springs before that, at a Passover seder. In that context, it is most commonly translated as “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” According to the traditional Passover haggadah, this Aramean is Lavan, the father is our patriarch Jacob, and this is the introduction to the story of the descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt, the enslavement of their descendants there, and the ultimate redemption of the Israelites from slavery by God. We read and discuss this passage at the seder in order to fulfill the obligation of Maggid, the retelling of our history and the reasons we observe Passover.
But in fact, I am a being a bit disingenuous above in saying this passage is famous for the liturgical use to which it has been put, as if it were not a liturgical text to begin with. In fact, Deut. 26 is all about a pair of ceremonies that were to take place once the Israelites entered the Land of Israel (“Ki tavo el ha-aretz,” the opening and naming words of our parashah). The first of these was the bringing of first fruits:
“When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.” (Deut. 26:1-2)
As we learn elsewhere in Torah, Num. 28:26, this took place not at Passover, but seven weeks later, at Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which is also referred to as “the day of first fruits.” Pilgrims coming to the Sanctuary for the holiday also brought this offering with them. Verse 5, then, is the opening of a ritual declaration made by the bringer of the fruits, and Etz Hayim here translates it as “My father was a fugitive Aramean.” Perhaps this father is still Jacob, who was the one to take the beginnings of the Israelite people to Egypt. Or perhaps it is Abraham, who came from Aram Naharaim (Etz Hayim suggests “Aram alongside the River”).
Yet though it is (nearly, as I’ll explain in a moment) the same passage, the context into which it is placed can make a rather significant difference. In the Passover seder, the passage is recited, and further interpreted, as a story of the journey from oppression to liberation: we were slaves, and God freed us. The recitation culminates with v. 8: “The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.” The “signs and portents” are then interpreted as a veiled reference to the ten plagues, and that is where the seder turns next.
While our oppression as slaves is part of the formula even in its original context, here the focus is subtly different, and the journey is one from rootlessness and being aliens in someone else’s land to autonomy and groundedness (both literary and metaphorical) as a nation. In fact, the historical declaration as it appears in Deut. and as it was meant to be said on Shavuot has an additional line (v. 9; and see also the similar statement in v. 3) that does not appear in the seder: “He (God) brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” And where this leads is to v. 10: “Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” In its original context, the message of the declaration is: we have arrived where we were meant to be, and we must give thanks for our bounty.
The Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi has posited that there are two types of Jews related to two Jewish holidays, one we’ve already discussed, and yet another spring holiday, Purim:
Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be brutal.” The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be naive.”
“Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat.
Now it just so happens that the command to remember Amalek is actually immediately juxtaposed to the first fruits ritual and declaration we have been discussing so far; it is Deut. 24:17-19, the final words of last week’s parashah. Which suggests that perhaps we need to add a third type of Jew – the Shavuot Jew – to the other two; and/or we might reconsider what it might mean to be a Passover Jew in contrast to a Shavuot Jew rather than in contrast to a Purim Jew.
There is much the Jew on Passover and the Jew on Shavuot share. Most significantly, Deut. 25:8-10 stress what God has done for God’s people: rescued us from Egypt and slavery, brought us to the Land, gave us the bounty of the Land. At the heart of our festivals, and our religious consciousness more generally, should always be our awareness of God’s role in the world and our lives. What we have and what we have experienced should be met with humility and gratitude rather than selfishness and self-satisfaction. Indeed, this might be something the Passover Jew and the Shavuot Jews share differently than the Purim Jew, in that the book of Esther is famously the one book of the Tanakh in which God’s presence and hand are hidden, the one book in which God’s name does not appear.
And yet… Halevi sees in the Passover Jew the call for justice for the oppressed: we know what it is to have been oppressed and so we are the ones in a place of power we should never become oppressors ourselves, when we can protest oppression and take up the cause of the oppressed, we must. And he is not wrong. But when the Passover Jews stands next to the Shavuot Jew, she looks a bit different to me.
The Passover Jew is redeemed from slavery, but still must go into the wilderness. She has been redeemed up to a point, but threats still abound, and she knows she is still in need of, and must seek, God’s protection. Also, the Passover Jew is bound up in the paradox of triumphantly listing the plagues that finally defeated the Egyptians while also pouring out drops of wine to mourn lives lost even among our enemies. The Passover Jew knows trauma, and is certainly allowed to celebrate its overthrow, but is challenged to seek compassion and justice nonetheless.
The Shavuot Jew, on the other hand, has arrived, in every sense of that word. She has a Land of her own in which she lives comfortably, and her needs are well met. What threatens her is complacency, smugness, and unwarranted self-congratulation. The challenge of the Shavuot Jew is not to forget that he too still needs God’s protection – in fact, that all that he has must be credited to God’s gifts and love.
And finally, what Halevi observes about his two types of Jews is true even for our three:
Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.
We all have to find, and embrace, our inner Passover Jew with her sense of justice, our inner Purim Jew who is vigilant on behalf the welfare of the people – and our inner Shavuot Jew who is full of gratitude and wonder at the blessings we experience.
And with that, I return us all to our regular scheduled fall holidays about to be in progress… Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah u’metukah!
From Rabbi Avram Davis
On the Parsha Ki Tavo. This parsha deals intensely with promises of pleasure and promises of pain. It speaks continuously of how to live a life properly and the fall-out that will happen if we don’t. It is a very strong canticle to the power of duality. I find in todays world there is a great deal of emphasis on the Oneness of things. Indeed, I write and meditate on this often. But this parsha is a tribute to the deep, deep duality of things. The Torah constantly reiterates this. Though the heart of the path is unity, yet there is no approaching except through a constant struggle and embracing of duality. Of making hard choices between this and that. The hard choices of being a human being: right or wrong; brave or cowardly; go forward or retreat. The need to make such choices is something we work hard on to teach our children. If we try and live a life of Oneness and spiritual unity without the embracing of duality and the choices that this necessitates, then we run the risk of disassociation. The very antithesis of Torah. For Torah is a path of earth and sky, fire and water. Of connection. I wish us all clarity in making our choices. Good shabbos.
From My Jewish Learning
History and Memory
Rabbi Irwin Kula
This passage was recited by Israelites when they brought the first fruits to the sanctuary. It is an excellent example of the interplay of ritual and recital in the service of memory. The essentials of the Jewish story are all here in a formula so powerful that the rabbis of the second century used this passage to introduce the discussion of the Exodus in the Passover Haggadah.
In the Haggadah , however, the rabbis omit the verse that describes God bringing the people into the land. It is understandable that the rabbis living with the loss of Temple and sovereignty over the land would want to de-emphasize focus on the land. By omitting the reference to the land and focusing on the Exodus itself, the harsh reality of destruction was mitigated.
This provides us with an insight into the functioning of people’s collective memory. A people needs to ask itself what to remember and what to forget. For any people, certain elements of the past — historical or mythic — become central and are transmitted (remembered) while other elements are forgotten.
At certain junctures in history — crisis, catastrophe, miracle — human groups, whether purposely or passively, fail to transmit what they know out of the past or reach back to recover forgotten elements with which there is a renewed sense of recognition.
In the second century, the rabbis, in response to catastrophe, chose not to transmit the memory of our story as was recited in the Temple liturgy. They actively chose both to remember and forget.
Having experienced unprecedented catastrophe and miracle in our century, it should not surprise us that we as a people are wrestling with which parts of our past to remember and which parts we need to forget. Perhaps we ought to reinsert the verse, “And God brought us to this place and gave us this land!”
Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.
From the Hebrew College
By Rabbi Adina Allen
Will We Listen?
In this week’s parsha, Moses sets two paths before the Israelites as they prepare to enter the land. If they heed God’s word, the Israelites will be blessed in every way possible and will be established as am kadosh, a holy people to God. If, however, they do not heed God, they will be cursed in every way imaginable. Their communities will be torn apart, their cities ravaged, their flocks decimated, their spirits broken, their hearts to be forever consumed by terror and dread.
Introducing these two paths to the Israelites Moses says, “If you listen, listen to the voice of Adonai your God” all blessings will follow, however, “if you do not listen to God’s voice” then every curse will ensue. From this choice of words we can understand that listening, more than any other action, is the essential practice for living a life in service to God and is at the heart of what it means to bring blessing into the world.
What is the voice of God and what does it mean to listen to this voice?
On first read, these verses seem to portray God’s voice as that of a dictator who will punish us if we don’t obey. In this read, to listen to God is to heed an abuser who holds power over us in order to force us to follow his will. There is a good reason why this view of God, though unappealing in some ways, is held by so many. In this read, the path we are meant to take is clear and is given to us, thereby relieving us of the burden of discernment. We either follow and are good, or disobey and are punished.
If, rather, we think of the voice of God as the sacred intuition within each one of us, we hear these lines differently. In this read, the listening that is being asked of us is a constant practice in each moment. It comes not from on high but rather from within. Though perhaps appealing on the surface, the challenge here is that this sort of listening requires continual engagement to find the path of blessing in each moment. The imperative of this view is that there are myriad right possibilities. Each of us hear certain aspects of God’s voice and the full truth requires all voices.
Amid such a divisive and challenging time in our country, the act of listening feels as essential as it does impossible. On all sides of the political spectrum voices are shouting to drown out those whom they see as threatening their existence. The higher the stakes, the louder we speak. We scream at one another at protests in the streets, in comment feeds on Facebook, and across the dinner table. The more threatened we feel, the more hopeless and hateful our speech becomes. So consumed by our own views, so entrenched within our own positions, we refuse to listen. It is times like these when listening to the other is most challenging that it is most crucial.
In my own experience, when I am not listened to I observe the chasm between me and the person with whom I’m speaking deepen and the chance for human connection diminishes. Ralph G. Nichols, founder of the International Listening Association explains why. “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Listening is the root of authentic relationship. In the framework of philosopher Martin Buber, listening is what allows us to develop an I-thou, rather than an I-it relationship. He described listening as “Something we do with our full selves by sensing and feeling what another is trying to convey” so we may remove the barrier between us.
In his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, author Mark Nepo describes listening as “a personal pilgrimage…we are asked to put down our conclusions and feel and think anew.” To put down our conclusions so that we might feel and think anew is exactly our task during this season of change and transformation as we approach the High Holy Days. And during such an intense time in our country, it’s never been more vital.
In this season we make teshuva, repair, ben adam l’makom—between ourselves and the Divine—and ben adam l’havero—between ourselves and our fellow humans. We are called to this task by the sounding of the shofar. Remarkably, the mandate is not to blow the shofar, but to hear its sound. The act of hearing the shofar is meant to awaken our capacity to listen. The shofar’s cry calls us to scan our year and search our souls for those times in which we failed to listen.
This is a year in which the teshuva we’re being asked to make is not only for the ways we’ve failed as individuals, it is for our collective failure to hear the complex and challenging voice of the Divine as it comes through each one of us. The strands of suffering, disenfranchisement and hopelessness that are demanding to be heard are those that have been denied for centuries. The stakes are high and the task is daunting. Will we listen? Our futures are inextricably bound, and curse and blessing hang in the balance.
From Brian Yosef Schachter- Brooks
Chosen to Choose
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE HOLY TONGUES – Parshat Ki Tavo
During the first half of the 13th-century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II conducted a series of experiments on young children, in order to discover the language of God. He would take an infant and have it imprisoned from birth, with hardly any human contact, in order to see if the growing child would naturally begin to speak the language first given to Adam and Eve. The monk Salimbene of Parma writes, in his Chronicles, that Frederick ordered nurses, “to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language, which had been the first…”
This disturbing experiment would be repeated, two centuries later, by James IV of Scotland, who sent two children to be raised on an island by a mute woman. “Some sayes they spak guid Hebrew,” writes Robert Lindsay, in The Cronicles of Scotland, though he seems rather dubious that this could have been the case.
Where did Frederick and James get such a notion – that there was a primary language at all, and that it was probably Hebrew? Likely, they took their cue from a literal reading of Genesis Chapter 11, verse 1 – the opening of the Tower of Babel story – in which we read that:
The whole earth had one language, and singular words.
וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים
The Bible says that once upon a time, everyone spoke the same language. And the Bible is written in Hebrew. So, one might presume, that was the language that everyone spoke. And since no other language had been mentioned before this, Hebrew must have been the only language on earth from the time of Adam and Eve on – until God came down, after the Tower of Babel had been built, and “scrambled their language” and scattered them throughout the world. (vv. 7-8)
In Rabbinic literature, however, the story of language development is not so straightforward. In fact, there is a sharp debate in the Talmud over exactly what it means that, “the whole world was one language.”
Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan disagreed. One said that they spoke seventy languages, and the other said that they spoke the language of the Great One: the Holy Tongue. (Jerusalem Talmud, Megilah 10a)
ר’ לעזר ור’ יוחנן חד אמר שהיו מדברים בשבעים לשון וחורנה אמר שהיו מדברין בלשון יחידו של עולם בלשון הקודש
Rabbi Yochanan seems to share Frederick’s assumption that the first language must have been Hebrew – commonly referred to in ancient Jewish literature as the “Holy Tongue.” But Rabbi Elazar’s opinion is harder to understand: “they spoke seventy languages.” How then, can the earth have been “of one language”? My great namesake, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher, explains in his Torah Shleimah that:
This means that everyone understood the language of his fellow, even though their words were “singular,” in that each one had his own language.
שפה אחת שהיה כל אחד מבין שפת חבירו, אע’’ג שדבריהם מיוחדים שלכל א׳ היה לשון משלו
Rabbi Elazar, then, does not seem to believe that there was a primary language, but instead that a certain degree of language diversity was always a feature of human life. But where does he get the number seventy?
That seems to come from an ethnological table in the previous chapter, where Noah’s grandchildren are listed as the founders of the nations of the world. There are seventy of those descendants, and so, a tradition develops that there were seventy founding nations in the world after the flood.
But what about before the flood? Would even Rabbi Elazar have to admit that in the prehistoric days of Adam and Eve there was only one language for all humankind – since after all, we all descend from that primeval pair?
Not necessarily. An intriguing comment of Rashi’s in this week’s parsha draws from an alternate vision of our linguistic origins. As we near the end of the Torah narrative, Moses begins to recount and write down everything that has happened. And this process is described, both here in Parshat Ki Tavo, and earlier, in the first parsha of Deuteronomy, with the unusual language of be’er (באר) – a word related to “well” (as in, a well of water), which suggests some great depth to the kind of communication Moses was engaged in. In both instances of this usage, Rashi says the same thing:
Moses expounded (be’er) this Torah (Dev. 1:5): That is, He explained it in seventy languages.
באר את התורה: בשבעים לשון פירשה להם
Moses wrote all the words of the Torah most distinctly (be’er heiteiv) (Dev. 27: 8) : That is, in seventy languages.
באר היטב: בשבעים לשון
So, it seems that for Moses to fully clarify and record the depth of the Torah, he must do so in seventy languages. This seems to be a reference to the seventy nations of the world; that is, Moses must articulate the message of the Torah in every one of the languages that resulted from the scattering at Babel, in order to give it full expression.
But the Midrash Tanchuma that Rashi is drawing from in these comments goes back even further in its account of the seventy languages:
The Holy Blessed One said, behold, the First Person, Adam, who had not been taught anything, how do we know that he spoke seventy languages? For it says, “And Adam called [all the animals] names.”(Gen. 2:20) It does not say, Adam called each animal ‘a name,’ but ‘names.’ And now you, Moses, who said, “I am not a man of words,” at the end of this forty years after leaving Egypt, you will begin to explain this Torah in seventy languages. As it says, “and Moses expounded (be’er) this Torah.”
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא, והרי אדם הראשון שלא למדו בריה, מנין היה יודע שבעים לשון, שנאמר, ויקרא להם שמות (בראשית ב כ). שם לכל הבהמה אין כתיב כאן, אלא שמות. ואתה אומר, לא איש דברים אנכי. בסוף ארבעים שנה שיצאו ישראל ממצרים, התחיל מפרש התורה בשבעים לשון, [שנאמר] באר את התורה הזאת
In this account, when Moses renders the Torah in seventy languages, he is not merely opening it up to the nations of the world, but reconnecting it back to the primary forms of expression. For the first human language was not Hebrew, nor any one single language. We were born into linguistic diversity. A return to our natural state will not simplify our modes of communication, but complexify them. There is no one holy tongue, but instead a primordial, cacophonous babble.
Now this is a message that some in the tradition simply cannot swallow. One of the most famous responses to Rashi’s “seventy languages” comment comes from the 19th-century German rabbi, Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his HaKetav VeHaKabbalah. He writes:
Rashi, borrowing from our rabbis, says that Moses explained the Torah in seventy languages. But they cannot mean that he wrote it in the languages of the other nations! For what would be the purpose of that for Israel?! No, the rabbis would not change their language so that it could be spoken by some other nation. Rather, it is the way of the rabbis to refer to “intention,” with the word “language”… and so, too, here: “seventy languages,” is “seventy intentions.”
לשק רש׳׳י מרבותינו בשבעים לשון פירשה להם; אין כוונתם על לשונות שאר העמים, כי מה תועלת היה להם לישראל מזה. וגם לרבותינו לא שנו את לשונם לדבר בשפת אומה אחרת. אבל דרך רבותינו לקרוא הכוונה והמכוון במאמר במלת לשון…וכן כאן בשבעים לשונות ר׳׳ל בשבעים כוונות
Rabbi Mecklenberg cannot accept the idea that the Torah is simply being translated by Moses. So he instead takes Rashi to mean that Moses delivered the Torah with seventy different connotations – the same message, in the same language, but each time spoken with different nuances and implications. He compares this process to the well known rabbinic maxim that there are “seventy faces to the Torah.” Moses was illuminating them all.
What motivates Rabbi Mecklenberg to suggest such a (lovely but) far-fetched reading of Rashi? Well, first of all, he simply cannot seem to fathom the possibility that the Torah might be available for study and engagement by all peoples. The only question that concerns him is the Torah’s “purpose for Israel.”
Secondly, it must be noted, he was clearly a passionate Hebraicist. His commentary, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, is one of the most linguistically oriented works in the genre. Nearly every comment is an in-depth explanation of the roots of a particular Hebrew phrasing. A work like that is the product of a person convinced that an analysis based on the power and depth of the Hebrew language, alone, is capable of uncovering all the hidden layers of meaning in the Torah. Why would we ever need a translation?
But I suspect that Rabbi Mecklenberg was also driven by a vision he shared with Rabbi Yochanan – and perhaps also the Emperor Frederick and King James of Scotland – of a discovering a pure, original, Holy Tongue. These men were obsessed with the idea of a primary language because it was something akin to the code of the universe. If they could learn the language of God, they could understand the how the world was created through its words – and they could enter into dialogue with the Creator. It was that potential that excited these linguistic purists.
There is another vision of the power of language, however – very different but equally exciting. It is well-expressed by the 18th-century Hassidic Master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He, too, is responding to Rashi’s commentary. “Why is the Torah expounded here in seventy languages?” he asks in his Kedushat Levi. He first points out that the Torah itself contains fragments of Aramaic, Greek, and some African languages. So even the original text, it seems, is not linguistically “pure.” And then he explains:
One of the reasons for this is that the language of every nation is the life-force of that nation. Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, is the distinct language of Israel. And indeed, they heard first the Torah at Mount Sinai in the Holy Tongue. But the Holy Blessed One, who sees from beginning to end, saw that Israel would have to be in exile, and so for this reason wrote into the Torah the languages of all nations. So that, through this, they would have the ability to hold on to the life-force of each one, through the language of the Holy Torah, in order for Israel to be able to survive in exile.
וחד טעם הוא, כי הלשון של כל האומות הוא החיות מן האומה ולשון הקודש הוא של ישראל לבד. ובאמת ישראל שמעו התורה בסיני רק בלשון הקודש והקדוש ברוך הוא המביט מראשית אחרית שראה שישראל צריכין להיות בגלות לזה כתב בתורה לשון של שאר אומות שעל ידי זה יהיה להם אחיזה בחיות שלהם שהוא הלשון בהתורה הקדושה בכדי שישראל יוכל להיות להם תקומה בגלות
Every language represents a life-force, an entire culture. Just as the Holy Tongue created the world for Israel, so every language creates a whole, unique world. And we, a wandering people, will find ourselves, in the course of history, living in all of those worlds. How will we survive? How will we, so foreign and estranged, find a foothold in terrain so alien to us?
We will find our place in the world – in every world – through our Torah. For our Torah – singular, particular, distinct in its form of expression – has been embedded with every other language in the world. Somewhere in our own tradition, we can find a point of intersection with every other culture we encounter. Deep, deep down in the well of our own sacred script, we will draw forth a living connection to all of humanity. We will learn to speak, like the First Person, a language of seventy tongues.
From Rabbi Richard Address
Ki Tavo:Approaching the Sacred With All Our Senses
Written by: Rabbi Richard Address
The portion, “Ki Tavo” (When you enter or go into) begins in Deuteronomy 26.1. When we enter the promised land we are commanded to being “some of every first fruit from the soil, which you harvest from the land..” (26.2). The Hebrew for “first fruits” reads “Me’reisheet col peri” As some have suggested, there is meaning in the use of this word “reisheet” as it harkens back to the very beginning of Genesis and the opening of Torah with the word “B’reisheet” (in the beginning, or when God began). The idea of first fruits, or beginnings come together with this portion and this time of year. Kushner and Olitzky reference the Sefer Emes who reminds us that we end the year (the Holidays now only days away) with a call to bring the first fruits and at those Holidays, we are reminded that it is a time for personal creation, as we celebrate the symbolic birthday of the world. beginnings, it seems, may be a theme of this time of year. This word “me’reisheet” can contain the sense that even as the year ends, the ideal of growth and creation is present.
Likewise, this is an offering to God. The portion contains a series of blessings and curses which provide an outline for how to organize the society that is soon to emerge. And, as the portion ends, there is this wonderful verse that speaks to us today: “And Adoni has not given you a heart to understand, eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day” (29.3) This verse can be read differently. In context, it may seem that despite all the miracles that were provided to the Israelites in their journey, they still have yet to come to God. Now, we can also lift the verse and read it to say that once we come to understand the presence of God in our life, we can understand the blessing of our hearts, our eyes and our ears.
Maybe one way for us to look at this verse and the portion, is to reflect on our own life, and, in anticipation of the New Year and new beginnings, maybe we can count our blessings, as opposed to dwelling on all the things that may not have gone well, and, in doing so, know that those blessings touch our hearts, fill our eyes and bring a joyful celebratory noise to our ears.
Rabbi Richard F Address
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
Renewing the Seals of Creation: Parashat Ki Tavo
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
When we reach the place of promise
The verses we just read instruct us that when we enter into the promised land, we are to offer the first fruits of the soil to God, and we are to recite before God “My father was a wandering Aramean…” — the story of how we became slaves in Egypt and we cried out to God, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Maybe those were instructions for specific people in a specific place and time. But I think they are also instructions for us now. Here’s what I think they say:
When you reach the place of promise, stop and remember where you come from. When you reach the thing you’ve been waiting for and working for, stop and be thankful, and then honor the sacredness of your own story. When you reach the moment you’ve been walking toward or running toward or yearning toward or trudging toward, cultivate gratitude, and then tell yourself how you got there.
When you finally “get there” — wherever “there” is for you: when you make it to Shabbat after a hard week, or when you make it to Rosh Hashanah after a long year, or when you make it to the day when you reunite with a beloved who has been far away, or when you realize that what you yearn for is already yours — remember the hardest part in your personal story, the narrow place, the Mitzrayim when your heart felt squeezed and your spirit thirsted for waters you weren’t sure where to find.
Even when we reach the place of promise –the time we’ve been waiting for, the internal spaciousness which is the opposite of Mitzrayim — Torah calls us to remember our own times of constriction. Maybe that’s because times of constriction come and go in every life, and Torah wants us to inscribe on our minds and hearts the truth that every constriction can lead to a new place of openness. If we’re willing to do the work, every constriction can be a contraction toward a new beginning.
Maybe it’s because our stories make us who we are, and the only way to fully reach the place of promise is to bring all of who we’ve been. Even the parts which were hard. Even the things about ourselves with which we struggle. Only when we bring our whole selves — including the parts of us which ache or cry out; including our own wounds — can we reach the place of promise. The place of promise is always open to us. Are we ready to gather the scattered parts of ourselves and come home?
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Pursuit of Joy (Ki Tavo 5775)
Happiness, said Aristotle, is the ultimate goal at which all humans aim. But in Judaism it is not necessarily so. Happiness is a high value. Ashrei, the closest Hebrew word to happiness, is the first word of the book of Psalms. We say the prayer known as Ashrei three times each day. We can surely endorse the phrase in the American Declaration of Independence that among the inalienable rights of humankind are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But Ashrei is not the central value of the Hebrew Bible. Occurring almost ten times as frequently is the word simcha, joy. It is one of the fundamental themes of Deuteronomy as a book. The root s-m-ch appears only once in each of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but no less than twelve times in Deuteronomy. It lies at the heart of the Mosaic vision of life in the land of Israel. That is where we serve God with joy.
Joy plays a key role in two contexts in this week’s parsha. One has to do with the bringing of first-fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. After describing the ceremony that took place, the Torah concludes: “Then you will rejoice in all the good things that the Lord your God has given you and your family, along with the Levites and the stranger in your midst” (26:11).
The other context is quite different and astonishing. It occurs in the context of the curses. There are two passages of curses in the Torah, one in Leviticus 26, the other here in Deuteronomy 28. The differences are notable. The curses in Leviticus end on a note of hope. Those in Deuteronomy end in bleak despair. The Leviticus curses speak of a total abandonment of Judaism by the people. The people walk be-keri with God, variously translated as ‘with hostility,’ ‘rebelliously,’ or ‘contemptuously.’ But the curses in Deuteronomy are provoked simply “because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart out of the abundance of all things” (28:47).
Now, joylessness may not be the best way to live, but it is surely not even a sin, let alone one that warrants a litany of curses. What does the Torah mean when it attributes national disaster to a lack of joy? Why does joy seem to matter in Judaism more than happiness? To answer these questions we have first to understand the difference between happiness and joy. This is how the first Psalm describes the happy life:
Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners or sat where scoffers sit. But his desire is in the Torah of the Lord; on his Torah he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in all that he does he prospers. (Ps. 1:1-3)
This is a serene and blessed life, granted to one who lives in accordance with the Torah. Like a tree, such a life has roots. It is not blown this way and that by every passing wind or whim. Such people bear fruit, stay firm, survive and thrive. Yet for all that, happiness is the state of mind of an individual.
Simcha in the Torah is never about individuals. It is always about something we share. A newly married man does not serve in the army for a year, says the Torah, so that he can stay at home “and bring joy to the wife he has married” (Deut. 24:5). You shall bring all your offerings to the central sanctuary, says Moses, so that “There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and rejoice in all you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.” (Deut. 12:7). The festivals as described in Deuteronomy are days of joy, precisely because they are occasions of collective celebration: “you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the strangers, the fatherless and the widows living among you” (16:11). Simcha is joy shared. It is not something we experience in solitude.
Happiness is an attitude to life as a whole, while joy lives in the moment. As J. D. Salinger once said: “Happiness is a solid, joy is a liquid.” Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to God. It comes from a different realm than happiness. It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude.
Paradoxically, the biblical book most focused on joy is precisely the one often thought of as the unhappiest of all, Kohelet, a.k.a. Ecclesiastes. Kohelet is notoriously the man who had everything, yet describes it all as hevel, a word he uses almost forty times in the space of the book, and variously translated as ‘meaningless, pointless, futile, empty,’ or as the King James Bible famously rendered it, ‘vanity.’ In fact, though, Kohelet uses the word simcha seventeen times, that is, more than the whole of the Mosaic books together. After every one of his meditations on the pointlessness of life, Kohelet ends with an exhortation to joy:
I know that there is nothing better for people than to rejoice and do good while they live. (3:12)
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to rejoice in his work, because that is his lot. (3:22)
So I commend rejoicing in life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and rejoice. (8:15)
However many years anyone may live, let him rejoice in them all. (11:8)
My argument is that Kohelet can only be understood if we realise that hevel does not mean ‘pointless, empty, or futile.’ It means ‘a shallow breath.’ Kohelet is a meditation on mortality. However long we live, we know we will one day die. Our lives are a mere microsecond in the history of the universe. The cosmos lasts for ever while we, living, breathing mortals, are a mere fleeting breath.
Kohelet is obsessed by this because it threatens to rob life of any certainty. We will never live to see the long-term results of our endeavours. Moses did not lead the people into the Promised Land. His sons did not follow him to greatness. Even he, the greatest of prophets, could not foresee that he would be remembered for all time as the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had. Lehavdil, Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. He could not have known that he would eventually be hailed as one of the greatest painters of modern times. We do not know what our heirs will do with what we leave them. We cannot know how, or if, we will be remembered. How then are we to find meaning in life?
Kohelet eventually finds it not in happiness but in joy – because joy lives not in thoughts of tomorrow, but in the grateful acceptance and celebration of today. We are here; we are alive; we are among others who share our sense of jubilation. We are living in God’s land, enjoying His blessing, eating the produce of His earth, watered by His rain, brought to fruition under His sun, breathing the air He breathed into us, living the life He renews in us each day. And yes, we do not know what tomorrow may bring; and yes, we are surrounded by enemies; and yes, it was never the safe or easy option to be a Jew. But when we focus on the moment, allowing ourselves to dance, sing and give thanks, when we do things for their own sake not for any other reward, when we let go of our separateness and become a voice in the holy city’s choir, then there is joy.
Kierkegaard once wrote: “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.” It is one of the most poignant facts about Judaism and the Jewish people that our history has been shot through with tragedy, yet Jews never lost the capacity to rejoice, to celebrate in the heart of darkness, to sing the Lord’s song even in a strange land. There are eastern faiths that promise peace of mind if we can train ourselves into habits of acceptance. Epicurus taught his disciples to avoid risks like marriage or a career in public life. Neither of these approaches is to be negated, yet Judaism is not a religion of acceptance, nor have Jews tended to seek the risk-free life. We can survive the failures and defeats if we never lose the capacity for joy. On Sukkot, we leave the security and comfort of our houses and live in a shack exposed to the wind, the cold and the rain. Yet we call it zeman simchatenu, our season of joy. That is no small part of what it is to be a Jew.
Hence Moses’ insistence that the capacity for joy is what gives the Jewish people the strength to endure. Without it, we become vulnerable to the multiple disasters set out in the curses in our parsha. Celebrating together binds us as a people: that and the gratitude and humility that come from seeing our achievements not as self-made but as the blessings of God. The pursuit of happiness can lead, ultimately, to self-regard and indifference to the sufferings of others. It can lead to risk-averse behaviour and a failure to ‘dare greatly.’ Not so, joy. Joy connects us to others and to God. Joy is the ability to celebrate life as such, knowing that whatever tomorrow may bring, we are here today, under God’s heaven, in the universe He made, to which He has invited us as His guests.
Toward the end of his life, having been deaf for twenty years, Beethoven composed one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, his Ninth Symphony. Intuitively he sensed that this work needed the sound of human voices. It became the West’s first choral symphony. The words he set to music were Schiller’s Ode to Joy. I think of Judaism as an ode to joy. Like Beethoven, Jews have known suffering, isolation, hardship and rejection, yet they never lacked the religious courage to rejoice. A people that can know insecurity and still feel joy is one that can never be defeated, for its spirit can never be broken nor its hope destroyed.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1.
 Journals and Papers, vol. 2, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1967, p. 493.
From the Maqam Project
Ki Tavo (5774) – A Nation of Storytellers
Howard Gardner, professor of education and psychology at Harvard University, is one of the great minds of our time. He is best known for his theory of “multiple intelligences,” the idea that there is not one thing that can be measured and defined as intelligence but many different things – one dimension of the dignity of difference. He has also written many books on leadership and creativity, including one in particular, Leading Minds, that is important in understanding this week’s parsha.
Gardner’s argument is that what makes a leader is the ability to tell a particular kind of story – one that explains ourselves to ourselves and gives power and resonance to a collective vision. So Churchill told the story of Britain’s indomitable courage in the fight for freedom. Gandhi spoke about the dignity of India and non-violent protest. Margaret Thatcher talked about the importance of the individual against an ever-encroaching State. Martin Luther King told of how a great nation is colour-blind. Stories give the group a shared identity and sense of purpose.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has also emphasized the importance of narrative to the moral life. “Man,” he writes, “is in his actions and practice as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.” It is through narratives that we begin to learn who we are and how we are called on to behave. “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” To know who we are is in large part to understand of which story or stories we are a part.
The great questions – “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What is our task?” – are best answered by telling a story. As Barbara Hardy put it: “We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.” This is fundamental to understanding why Torah is the kind of book it is: not a theological treatise or a metaphysical system but a series of interlinked stories extended over time, from Abraham and Sarah’s journey from Mesopotamia to Moses’ and the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. Judaism is less about truth as system than about truth as story. And we are part of that story. That is what it is to be a Jew.
A large part of what Moses is doing in the book of Devarim is retelling that story to the next generation, reminding them of what God had done for their parents and of some of the mistakes their parents had made. Moses, as well as being the great liberator, is the supreme story teller. Yet what he does in parshat Ki Tavo extends way beyond this.
He tells the people that when they enter, conquer and settle the land, they must bring the first ripened fruits to the central sanctuary, the Temple, as a way of giving thanks to God. A Mishnah in Bikkurim describes the joyous scene as people converged on Jerusalem from across the country, bringing their firstfruits to the accompaniment of music and celebration. Merely bringing the fruits, though, was not enough. Each person had to make a declaration. That declaration become one of the best known passages in the Torah because, though it was originally said on Shavuot, the festival of firstfruits, in post-biblical times it became a central element of the Haggadah on seder night:
My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt and lived there, few in number, there becoming a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians ill-treated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labour. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. (Deut. 26: 5-8)
Here for the first time the retelling of the nation’s history becomes an obligation for every citizen of the nation. In this act, known as vidui bikkurim, “the confession made over firstfruits,” Jews were commanded, as it were, to become a nation of storytellers.
This is a remarkable development. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi tells us that, “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” Time and again throughout Devarim comes the command to remember: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” “Remember what Amalek did to you.” “Remember what God did to Miriam.” “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”
The vidui bikkurim is more than this. It is, compressed into the shortest possible space, the entire history of the nation in summary form. In a few short sentences we have here “the patriarchal origins in Mesopotamia, the emergence of the Hebrew nation in the midst of history rather than in mythic prehistory, slavery in Egypt and liberation therefrom, the climactic acquisition of the land of Israel, and throughout – the acknowledgement of God as lord of history.”
We should note here an important nuance. Jews were the first people to find God in history. They were the first to think in historical terms – of time as an arena of change as opposed to cyclical time in which the seasons rotate, people are born and die, but nothing really changes. Jews were the first people to write history – many centuries before Herodotus and Thucydides, often wrongly described as the first historians. Yet biblical Hebrew has no word that means “history” (the closest equivalent is divrei hayamim, “chronicles”). Instead it uses the root zakhor, meaning “memory.”
There is a fundamental difference between history and memory. History is “his story,” an account of events that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is “my story.” It is the past internalised and made part of my identity. That is what the Mishnah in Pesachim means when it says, “Each person must see himself as if he (or she) went out of Egypt.”
Throughout Devarim Moses warns the people – no less than fourteen times – not to forget. If they forget the past they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Moreover, not only are the people commanded to remember, they are also commanded to hand that memory on to their children.
This entire phenomenon represents are remarkable cluster of ideas: about identity as a matter of collective memory; about the ritual retelling of the nation’s story; above all about the fact that every one of us is a guardian of that story and memory. It is not the leader alone, or some elite, who are trained to recall the past, but every one of us. This too is an aspect of the devolution and democratization of leadership that we find throughout Judaism as a way of life. The great leaders tell the story of the group, but the greatest of leaders, Moses, taught the group to become a nation of storytellers.
You can still see the power of this idea today. As I point out in my book The Home We Build Together, if you visit the Presidential memorials in Washington, you see that each carries an inscription taken from their words: Jefferson’s ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .’, Roosevelt’s ‘The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself’, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural, ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .’ Each memorial tells a story.
London has no equivalent. It contains many memorials and statues, each with a brief inscription stating who it represents, but there are no speeches or quotations. There is no story. Even the memorial to Churchill, whose speeches rivalled Lincoln’s in power, carries only one word: Churchill.
America has a national story because it is a society based on the idea of covenant. Narrative is at the heart of covenantal politics because it locates national identity in a set of historic events. The memory of those events evokes the values for which those who came before us fought and of which we are the guardians.
A covenantal narrative is always inclusive, the property of all its citizens, newcomers as well as the home-born. It says to everyone, regardless of class or creed: this is who we are. It creates a sense of common identity that transcends other identities. That is why, for example, Martin Luther King was able to use it to such effect in some of his greatest speeches. He was telling his fellow African Americans to see themselves as an equal part of the nation. At the same time, he was telling white Americans to honour their commitment to the Declaration of Independence and its statement that ‘all men are created equal’.
England does not have the same kind of national narrative because it is based not on covenant but on hierarchy and tradition. England, writes Roger Scruton, “was not a nation or a creed or a language or a state but a home. Things at home don’t need an explanation. They are there because they are there.” England, historically, was a class-based society in which there were ruling elites who governed on behalf of the nation as a whole. America, founded by Puritans who saw themselves as a new Israel bound by covenant, was not a society of rulers and ruled, but rather one of collective responsibility. Hence the phrase, central to American politics but never used in English politics: “We, the people.”
By making the Israelites a nation of storytellers, Moses helped turn them into a people bound by collective responsibility – to one another, to the past and future, and to God. By framing a narrative that successive generations would make their own and teach to their children, Moses turned Jews into a nation of leaders.
 Howard Gardner in collaboration with Emma Laskin, Leading minds: an anatomy of leadership, New York, Basic Books, 2011.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.
 Mishnah Bikkurim ch. 3.
 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Schocken, 1989, 9.
 Yerushalmi, ibid., 12.
 This is a simple reminder not an etymology. Historia is a Greek word meaning inquiry. The same word comes to mean, in Latin, a narrative of past events.
 Mishnah Pesachim 10: 5.
 Roger Scruton, England, an Elegy, Continuum, 2006 ,16.
When you Finally Get There
Reb Miles Krassen
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Ki Tavo 5773/2013: “Unintelligible Yet Meaningful”
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
celebrating the wedding of Etai and Anna
in memory of Sheldon Wolfe z”l
As Rashi says, commenting on the biblical verses depicting receiving the Torah at Sinai, “all beginnings are difficult (Ex. 19:5).”
Any transition might prompt anxiety. Combination of transitions can be simply overwhelming. Just imagine what it must have been for the Israelites, just about to enter the land with the beginning of our Parsha. The last parasha, Ki Tetze, details the community they must create together, and now, after 40 years in the desert (not to mention 400 years of slavery) waiting for the fulfillment of God’s Promise – they’re almost there. What must have been on their minds? What might they have been imagining?
This moment of our People’s journey is an intense one, pregnant with possibility.
“Ki Tavo el Ha’Aretz, When you enter the land…” What to do when a dream is about to be fulfilled? Perhaps not the obvious response, the first commandment in the Torah following these words is to bring the bikurim, the first fruits. Gratitude before God is understandable but the first crop? The first experience of self-nourishment? We endure 40 years of desert before stepping foot in a land of milk and honey, and that first taste is denied to us? What lesson is to be learned from the juxtaposition of our first entry into the land and bikurim?
At least three facets of this question warrant reflection:
1) To whom are we giving the gift? God? The priest actually receives the gift as God’s indirect agent.
2) The formula said when bringing the bikurim to the priest? “Arami Oved Avi,” recited at every Seder, yet the translations vary; either, “My father was a wandering Aramean” or “An Aramean tried to destroy my father” among other possibilities.
3) Where can we give this gift today? The priests, as we know them, don’t exist. There is no Jerusalem Temple, and even most Jews who live in Israel are not farmers – how can we give bikurim today?
We can no longer give an indirect gift using words even we don’t understand. Should we experience this as loss at all?
A thought: With every new beginning, our hearts are overfilled with joy and thanks, so caught up in the realization of dreams that words fall short. Holy moments defy language. So the bikurim formula of “Arami Oved Avi” “works” because it is, perhaps, to express words that defy meaning than to limit the moment to words we understand.
Words can reduce meaning, and the power of the bikurim formula, in this light, is in its elusiveness.
Rashi was correct. Transitions are daunting. New, intense experiences, happy and sad, bring us to tears. We are grateful to be alive. We miss our loved one. And we simply don’t have the words.
So we offer the best we can, exhaling and inhaling these elusive moments, knowing there will never be adequate expression.
From American Jewish World Service
Rabbi Wendi Geffen
…Arami oved avi—my father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt in meager numbers, but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us, oppressed us, imposed heavy labor upon us… Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Adonai, have given me.1
These lines, perhaps best known to many of us from the Passover Haggadah, also comprise the text of the ancient first-fruits (Bikkurim) ritual described in Parashat Ki Tavo. Once settled in the Land of Israel, our ancestors were commanded to offer God a basket of the first of their fruit crops.2 Beyond this physical act, the ritual required each person making the offering to recite this passage (called Mikra Bikkurim), summing the arc of the Jewish redemptive narrative through both a personal and collective lens. The ritual’s combination of the physical and verbal, individual and communal, spiritual and historical seem to render it an “ideal” ritual.
But the Mishnah points out one snag. While those who knew the words of Mikra Bikkurim recited it from memory, those unfamiliar with the script would have to repeat the words after a priest.3 As a result, many of these presumably less-educated Israelites felt “shame”4 and stopped bringing their first-fruit offerings altogether. Concerned that not every Israelite would thus be able to participate equally, the Mishnah offered a corrective measure in which everyone, regardless of education, had to repeat after the priest, thus preserving the dignity of the under-educated and allowing the return of regular ritual performance for all.
The very next mishnah points out another disparity between the people who brought offerings: the wealthy brought first-fruit baskets made with gold and silver whereas the poor brought simple baskets woven with tree branches.5 However, unlike the previous teaching, this mishnah simply ends here. There is no indication that shame about their meager baskets prevented poor people from participating in the public Bikkurim mitzvah, nor is there—as we might expect—a rabbinic mandate for rich and poor alike to bring wicker baskets as a means of equalizing this part of the experience.
We therefore learn from these two mishnayot that being poor did not limit participation in the first-fruit offerings, but being undereducated did. This counters our natural assumption that people would surely feel more ashamed of their financial insecurity (so blatant given the appearance of their baskets), than of their poor education, something much less obvious.
Whether they intended to or not, by raising educational disparity as such a powerful obstacle to equal participation, the rabbis of the Mishnah highlighted an important understanding about ending poverty, discrimination and injustice. Not only can lack of education be a source of shame—perhaps even more embarrassing than poverty—but it can also be a significant obstacle to overcoming poverty. In the words of an impoverished and illiterate resident of Swaziland:
I used to never worry about my illiteracy and the fact that I was not able to send my children to school, as long as we had something to eat. But now I realize that my children are in trouble for life because they cannot get any decent job if they don’t know how to read and write.6
This understanding—that education is a critical component of poverty-reduction—drives the work of many organizations working to bring global social justice to our world today. Take AJWS grantee Shan Youth Power as an example. As a result of horrific human rights violations, many Shan people have fled from Burma to Thailand since the 1990s. Due to their lack of legal refugee status, the Shan, particularly the youth, face immense hardships. Shan Youth Power describes the situation this way:
Constant moving, discrimination, and academic misplacement within the school system, lack of transportation, and language barriers all hinder or block the Shan migrant students’ ability to attain academic success, and therefore gain access to higher education or better jobs in the future.7
To address these immense challenges, Shan Youth Power has developed teaching and tutorial programs to directly reach hundreds of Shan children and youth and empower them through education.
Societal change and equalization cannot and will not occur unless and until we have empowered people with the knowledge and skills to raise their status in the world. The mishnah about Bikkurim offered a model of equalized opportunity for our ancestors. By offering support for those who work to educate the disenfranchised in our world today, we can do the same.
1 Deuteronomy 26:3, 5-10.
2 Specifically the seven species of vegetation identified by Torah as unique to the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
3 Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7.
4 As noted in the commentaries on this mishnah.
5 Mishnah Bikkurim 3:8.
6 Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? World Bank, 2000. Available at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPOVERTY/Resources/335642-1124115102975/1555199-1124115187705/ch2.pdf
7 Education Project, Shan Youth Power, http://www.shanyouthpower.org/home/2012-04-01-12-25-00/education-project.
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Ki Tavo 1 This Is What It Says
September 5, 2012
Last week we left, when we ki teitzei’d left our expectations, etc., we were free to come this week, last week we left singular it always feels singular when you make that break with expectations. You think you’re the first the only one to have to push on that way in your courageousness you have to go this alone, this leaving that we all have to strike in order to make freedom.
This week we join with a great mess of similar pilgrims, they all had to ki teitzei they all had to leave their expectations their complacency behind they had to get up off that thing and get on with it – you did – you got up off that thing and got on with it and when you did you arrived at this week in the great swirl the movement of time the flow you entered the flow and you ki tavo’d you came into, you came somewhere, then you became plural, came into a place you could not have predicted you did not expect you could not have imagined because you were bold and went ki teitzei’d by yourself and once you did you become a part of the great freedom walk of human beings you all ki tavo’d and came into something. You arrived somewhere and you were not alone.
O human being, you are strong strong by your getting up off that thing and you believed for a while maybe a long while you could not do it but you could do it and you did it and once you did – you have a whole mess of an army joining you in that journey and you came into something.
Here we all are this week, we became plural in a week’s time and don’t you dare think for a moment that it is not significant. I have been told by the smartest people I know that if they had stayed singular they would have stayed dumb. If they had remained singular they would have remained sad and alone in the rathskeller of the spirit where individuals stew in their uniqueness in desperate and insoluble places, people begin to stink there from their own listlessness and inability to get up off that thing and be someone different than destiny.
Hell, I have been told by the boldest person I know that there is no destiny. Everything is foreseen but free will is given, get up off that thing and make it happen, I have been told.
Get up out of that cellar, it’ll take you a good week, you can make that trip from when you leave singular to when you come into something, you become plural get up off that thing and get on with it.
This is what the Torah says.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Fruits of the Journey (5771/2011)
In the first ten lines of Parshat Ki Tavo, Moshe tells the Israelites how to offer the first fruits of the land as a thanksgiving offering, in celebration of the journey from slavery to freedom to the Promised Land. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1-10)
Moshe’s words describe the Israelites’ geographic travels, and they also describe a recurring inner journey. If we read the words with the inner journey in mind, they offer an important Rosh Hashanah reminder. New Year’s resolutions flow from reflections on all aspects of our lives – from mistakes and successes, moments of spiritual confusion as well as inspiration.
Explore this inner-oriented translation of Moshe’s words, and allow yourself to ask: what are the fruits of my inner journey that I wish to share in the coming year?
When you come to a place of spiritual fulfillment,
an inner place that finally feels like “home,”
notice what ripens inside you.
Gather it together,
and go to the inner place where you feel close to God,
where you feel that Someone will witness your words.
When an older version of me
first wandered into this narrow place
I grew in response to challenge.
But over time, the inner work became too hard.
I felt beaten down and punished.
So I cried out to you, Holy One, and
You reached out to me,
showed me the signs,
offered me your strength,
brought me to a land where inner treasures flow.
Now I wish to share the fruits of this journey.
I am sending you my D’var Torah from yesterday on Ki Tavo, I usualy don’t plan ahead what I am going to say and I am warming up and get inspired in front of the scroll. Some of the things I say I have integrated from past teachings I recieved as a Maggid, and some are my own. I hope my English is well enoguh and communicative. Blessings, Tamar
D’var Torah on “Ki Tavo” by Tamar Pelleg, MA, Maggid and Bibliodrama facilitator.
The Promised Land is a symbol to a state of consciousness, an integrated Self, in which all the parts of the Self are integrated. An enlightened state to which we strive to “arrive at” all of out life (40 years). In the state of a whole integrated Self there is natural flow between our state of consciousness and God’s, there is a flow of abundance, accompanied with feeling of being nurtured and it is so sweet…milk and honey.
Therefore, when Moses is conducting the ceremony (ritual) on Mt. Greezim and Mt. Eyval (the blessing and the curse) it is significant that he divides the people into groups of 6 and 6 between the two mountains. In our tradition the number 12 represent something whole. (12 tribes, 12 moths of the year). Has Moses ordered all the 12 tribes on each mountain, he would have created an n UN natural situation. When he divides them to two equal parts and positions them equally between the blessings and the curses, he is delivering a very important message:
No integration is possible by denying the “shadow parts”, or by concentrating only on one part: only the enlightened part or only the shadow part. (In Kabala language it is mentioned as raising the sparks from the shadow to the light.)
In my minds eyes, I vision this part as the first psychodrama/ Sociodrama in the Bible…when Moses, the “conductor” invites the people to take the roles of the cursing and the blessings and embody in their bodies the need for integration.
I bless all who came for this Aliya (and everybody..) to cultivate our “Moses” part, who is the conductor and the communicator between the shadow side and enlightened side and let us say Amen!
Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo
September 17, 2011 / 18 Elul 5771
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Fixed Prayer, Spontaneous Meaning
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 60:1-22
Rabbinic lore tells the story about a time, thousands of years ago, in the 2nd century, when there was a serious drought in ancient Israel. The people turned to their powerful and pious leader, Rabbi Eliezer, asking him to pray the prayers for rain. Having previously demonstrated the efficacy of his prayer, Rabbi Eliezer wanted to prove that he could make God act. So, he spent days in meditation, fasting, and preparation for praying for rain. When finally the time came, the community watched as he recited his prayers. But, no rain fell.
Suddenly, another rabbi, Rabbi Akiva appeared in his place, crying: “Avinu Malkeinu, ein lanu melech ela Atah, Avinu Malkeinu, aseh imanu lama’an shmecha – Our Father, our King, there is no other king but You. Our Father, our King, do with us for your name’s sake.”
So is the story of how one of our most well known High Holiday prayers with its stirring melody found its way into the fabric of our Yom Kippur liturgy.
Some study this incident from the Talmud convinced that Rabbi Akiba’s prayer was the one that was answered because he deliberately and successfully prayed the prescribed words of an already fixed liturgy. Others are convinced that what compelled God to respond to Rabbi Akiba was the kavannah (the intentionality), the passion, the spontaneity with which he poured out his heart in authentic prayer and that it was because of that ecstatic prayer experience that Avinu Malkeinu later earned its position of primacy in our siddur and mahzor.
With the High Holidays around the corner, I already find myself humming Avinu Malkeinu, anticipating the connection I always feel through its stirring images and spiritual combination of words and melodies. So, perhaps it should not be surprising that this story of prayer is on my mind as I read this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, where the Torah describes another set words of prayer that was to be offered as the bikkurim, the first fruits.
When the people entered the land of Israel, the “land of milk and honey” and settled there, they would bring their first fruits to the Temple each year as an offering (minus, of course, the poor tithe which was reserved for the stranger, the widow, and orphan every third year) at the precise time and to the specific place that Torah says God will designate. After placing the basket on the altar, each pilgrim is to recite his scripted prayer which began with the words familiar to some from the Pesach seder: “Arami oved avi – My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10). Each time, the individuals would recite this prayer that summarizes the history of the people: our ancestors wanderings, slavery in Egypt, liberation, and entry into the Promised Land.
This prayer offered is one of a very few fixed prayers in the Torah (another being Birkat Kohanim, “May God Bless You and Keep You….,” in Numbers 6:24). And, as we know, today we are the inheritors of a great collection of fixed rabbinic formulas and words for prayers. There are expectations of what we pray, when we pray, how we pray, the order of our prayers. We have fixed words, fixed times, and often it seems fixed places. This is what makes each of our services predictable – Torah reading on certain days, the Amidah in each service, the placement of the shema. We know what to expect and when to expect the words, prayers and melodies. At the same time, prayer is supposed to be service of the heart, a passionate outcry of our deepest emotions and feelings, an experience that can only be accomplished through kavannah (intentionality) that is by definition individual and unpredictable.
Keva – fixed prayer, and kavannah – personal intentionality and focus, can at times be two competing purposes, at odds with one another. So, how do we integrate the two? How do we become prayers who can experience both, without having to give up on either?
Many have written and spoken on the need for personal meaning, the drive to infuse modern prayer with more connection, spirit, and life. So, perhaps some will find it comforting to know that this tension between reciting prescribed words at prescribed times and experiencing them as meaningful is not new. From community to community, there have always been different customs and practices around prayer. And, even as the mishnah reported the order of prayers and the words that should be said, they also cautioned: “One that makes his prayer a fixed task, his prayer is no supplication.” (Mishnah Brachot 4:4). Or, in another place: “Be heedful in reciting of the Shema and when you pray make not your prayer a fixed form but plea for mercy.” (Pirke Avot 2:13).
Keva and kavannah are not, and have not ever been, mutually exclusive. Finding the time, accessing the words of prayer can be difficult; and left to our own devices we might forget to even try. So, as we recite the shema and amidah, (or any other prayer), our liturgy prompts us, reminding us of our history – from where we have come and to where we are going. The liturgy of the siddur assembles our collective destinies and aspirations, and provides space for expanded emotional and spiritual vocabulary, enabling each of us to pave our own paths. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us: “Prayer is a perspective from which to behold, from which to respond to, the challenges we face. Man in prayer does not seek to impose his will on God; he seeks to impose God’s will and mercy upon himself…. To pray is to open a door, where both God and the soul may enter.” This type of prayer is indeed prayer of the heart, prayer that expresses our deepest yearnings and concerns; it is prayer that is heartfelt and transformative. And, it is full of kavannah.
Sitting in synagogue on a regular basis and especially in the upcoming days of the High Holiday season, it can be difficult to remember and access the impact the words on the page can have on us. So, this year, I will bring with me this reminder from Chaim Grade, the Yiddish Writer whose work Yeshiva was translated into English (and whose smaller work is the basis of a well known plan called The Quarrel):
There are those who don’t understand how a man can recite the same prayers all his life. The worthy people maintain that even a poet who sings his own songs must continually produce new ones. Those who don’t pray themselves, can’t imagine that when a Jew recites a psalm with all his heart, the ancient poem becomes the worshiper’s own brand new poem, just as all of creation is made new daily for the man of faith. Every sensitive man has a day in his life when he awakes and looks at the sun as if he had never seen it before. Of course, no one dreams that a new sun would actually materialize before his eyes. Similarly, new prayers aren’t necessary for the person who prays with all his heart and soul.
With blessings for your own combination of keva and kavannah and with personal wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,
Reb Sholom Brodt
17 Elul 5770 8/27/2010
Tonight we celebrate the birthdays of two remarkable holy souls, to whom we are dearly and joyfully indebted: Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezr, the holy Baal Shemtov was born on the 18th of Elul in 5458 (1698); Reb Schneur Zalman, The Alter Rebbe was born on the 18th of Elul 5505 (1745). The great holy light and joy which they brought down to the people of Israel and to the entire world continues to shine ever more brightly. Happy birthday! In the merit of their birthdays, may we be ever more deeply connected to Hashem and to their teachings of Chassidus, may we serve Hashem with greater and deeper joy, always.
In their honor, I wish to share a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov and the second installment of the Alter Rebbe’s ma’amar, Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li. This teaching contains a very deep lesson about our relationship with Hashem and the meaning of the name Yisrael. It is not enough for us to just read and learn the Alter Rebbe’s teachings, they are given to meditate upon deeply and frequently.
To Make Hashem’s Name Dwell There – A Teaching from the Baal Shem Tov
In the opening two verses of our parsha we read:
V’HAYA KI TAVO EL HA-ARETZ V’HALACHTAH EL HAMAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM ELOKECHA LE’SHAKEIN SHMO SHAM. – AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS, THAT WHEN YOU WILL COME TO THE LAND, AND YOU SHALL GO TO THE PLACE THAT HASHEM YOUR G-D WILL CHOOSE TO PLACE HIS NAME THERE.
Who determines where you are and where you are going? We make plans, all kinds of plans. There is a Yiddish aphorism, “der mentsch tracht un Got lacht”, man thinks/plans and G-d laughs.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that a Jew must know that Hashem can provide him with his livelihood anywhere. And though it is we who make choices as to where we want to live, ultimately, “… you will go to the place that Hashem your G-d will choose.” Hashem will send you where He wants you to be. And what are you to do there?
“LE’SHAKEIN SHMO SHAM … to place His Name there.” We are to make that place a dwelling place for Hashem’s Name, a dwelling place for the Shechinah. Sometimes, when you are on a journey, you think you know where you are going, but suddenly you find that you have taken a wrong turn. Why are you there? You are there “to place His Name there.” Wherever we are, we have the opportunity and responsibility to bring Hashem’s Presence there. By making a blessing over a drink or by saying a prayer in that place, you are “making Hashem’s name dwell there.”
You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the land… (Deuteronomy 26:2)
Everything that is for the sake of G-d should be of the best and most beautiful. When one builds a house of prayer, it should be more beautiful than his own dwelling. When one feeds the hungry, he should feed him of the best and sweetest of his table. When one clothes the naked, he should clothe him with the finest of his clothes. Whenever one designates something for a holy purpose, he should sanctify the finest of his possessions; as it is written (Leviticus 3:16), “The choicest to G-d.”
The rule, “the choicest to G-d,” applies in all areas of life. If the school day must include both sacred and secular studies, the former should be scheduled for the morning hours when the mind is at its freshest and most receptive. If one’s talents are to be divided between two occupations, one whose primary function is to pay the bills and a second which benefits his fellow man, he should devote his keenest abilities to the latter.
In devoting the “first-ripened fruits” of his life to G-d, a person, in effect, is saying: “Here lies the focus of my existence. Quantitatively, this may represent but a small part of what I am and have; but the purpose of everything else I do and possess is to enable this percentile of spirit to rise above my matter-clogged life.”
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Ki Tavo
It shall be when you enter the Land
that Hashem your God gives you as an inheritance
and you possess it
and dwell in it
that you shall take of the first fruit of the ground
that you bring in from your land
that Hashem your God will choose. [Deut. 26:1-2]
Of the seven species associated with the Land
wheat, barley, grape, fig,
and pomegranate, a land of oil-olives and honey [Deut.8:8]
Rashi say not bee honey date honey
Rashi say oil-olives
he say, the olive she grows where winters are temperate
too far north I am for a good olive, but I often summer south
Italia, where the oils in the southern provinces are heavy
in the northern provinces, the oils are milder.
Liquid gold, say I.
Exactement. Parfaitemente, Rashi say.
I say, domesticate the olive comes from the homeland,
Middle East, 6000 BCE.
Olive trees make fruit in arid, stony soil
all around Mediterranean.
Rashi say, I have heard that there is a tree in the Maremma
near Tyrrhenian coast
3500 years old, before the Greeks,
before the Etruscans even.
The Romans made the commerce with the olives
created the classifications: vergine, extra vergine all that.
The Benedictines took over after the fall of the Empire.
Rashi say, Extra vergine the oil must be extracted
from first press, mechanical only
must contain less than 1 percent oleic acid.
Vergine, same extraction, less than 2 percent acid.
First pressed oils sometimes blended with lesser oils
this troubles me, Rashi say.
I say to Rashi, it’s the olive oil that’s one of the seven species, not the olive.
The midrash say, the olive releases its best qualities when squeezed.
I say, Don’t you love that?
Rashi say, I do. I do love that. The Italianos have a wonderful expression
I will translate for you: the great olive oil must suffer.
I say, Oh, that’s so Jewish.
Rashi say, so Italiano.
Torah say, [Deut.26:3ff.]
When you enter the land,
go to the holy man,
take baskets of first fruits,
go where God tells you.
Give your baskets to the holy man,
then – tell him what happened, in brief:
we have been lost, we are coming home.
End the story with gratitude
for having been brought to this place.
Bow down and sit together with the holy ones
and the strangers among you.
Have lunch together.
Set up large stones, [Deut.27:2ff.]
inscribe these teachings,
on the stones.
Torah say, Shhh — find your silence.
Today you have become a people of God.
Live in that for a long time.
Let blessings pour out of you
like a fountain.
After each blessing,
You will be blessed in the city and in the suburbs, [Deut.28:3]
through your children yourselves and your ancestors,
blessed will you be in your coming and in your going,
blessed will you be at the top and at the bottom,
the whole journey will be blessed.
You will be blessed among the huts
and other holy places.
There might be some curses too [Deut.27:15ff.]
There might be some curses too
From Rav Dovber Pinson
Energy of the Week:
Parshas Ki Savo
Confessions & AffirmationsBalancing Shame & PrideParshas
Ki Savo opens with the words “And it will be, when you come into the land which Hashem, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you posess it and settle in it. You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground…And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which Hashem, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there.”
When you are settled in your land, and have already cultivated your space, you then bring the first-ripened fruits (bikkurim) of your orchard to the Holy Temple. Once this offering has been brought, the person will utter a verbal Viduy/confession, this is a positive, affirming confession in which one declares before Hashem that he/she has done all that You have told us to do, and therefore, we are deserving of blessings to be bestowed upon us.(26:13-15)
Confession is commonly thought of as an admission of guilt and shame, an owning of the negative. In this instance however, the Torah speaks of a “positive confession’, an affirmation as it were, standing proud before our Creator and declaring that indeed, we have done well.
In the month of Elul our task is to revisit our past. In gathering up all our behaviors and actions in the previous year, we encounter some things which are wonderful and positive and others that are not. On the journey to transformation, owning our mistakes is paramount. Taking responsibility for our doings and undoings.
On this gathering journey towards our personal transformation, we need to bring all of ourselves into the basket of our actions. If we focus on the negative alone, we are in danger of falling into a depression from which it is impossible to grow. In declaring our confession we must simultaneously affirm our goodness.
This is the part of the teshuvah process that we find ourselves in this month. When you have settled into a good place, and are cultivating yourself to grow and improve, the affirmation of your goodness along with your confession is crucial to the success of your transformation.
The Energy of the Week
Confessing and AffirmingThis week we recognize the existence of both the positive and negative effects of our actions, realizing that we have behaved both well, and sometimes badly.
Understanding that while we are gathering the negative, painful parts of our past year, we must not neglect to raise up the wonderful, positive person we have been as well.
The balance of shame and pride is the challenge of this month, and we receive the energy to confess and affirm simultaneously this week, leading to a healthy sense of self and a solid place from which to grow.
From Melissa Carpenter
Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself
These will stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin (Hearer, Joiner, God-thanker, Hired Man, Increaser, and Son of Strength). And these will stand above the cursing on Mount Eival: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali (Son-Beholder, Fortune-Cutter, Progress-Maker, Home-Exalter, Judge, and Twister). And the Levites will testify, and they will say to all the men of Israel in a loud voice: Accursed is the man who … And all the people will answer and say: Amen. (27:12-15)
kelalah = cursing, degrading, demeaning, making light of
arur = accursed, cursed, isolated and ruined
Mount Gerizim, which represented blessings, was thickly wooded. Mount Eival, which represented curses, was bare and stony. The two hills stood (and still stand) about half a mile apart. At one spot the slopes facing one another were curved to form a natural amphitheater, so someone who stood in the middle of the valley and shouted could actually be heard by people standing on the two slopes. Gerizim and Eival rise above the city of Nablus now, but in ancient times the city of Shechem lay in the valley between them. (See my blog “Vayishlach: Mr. Shoulders” on Shechem.)
The ritual prescribed in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (When you enter), would have a major psychological impact on people just entering their new homeland. Instead of celebrating victory, they dedicate themselves to choosing good and avoiding evil.
Because the wooded Mount Gerizim stands for blessings and the barren Mount Eival stands for curses, it is clear that doing the right things means choosing the blessing of abundant life, whereas doing the wrong things means choosing an accursed life of emptiness and metaphorical death. By saying “Amen” after the Levites recite each curse, the people commit themselves to this choice.
And what are the twelve accursed behaviors? Making and secretly setting up an idol; demeaning one’s father or mother; moving another’s boundary marker; making a blind person go astray; skewing a judgment of a stranger, orphan, or widow; sex with one’s father’s wife; sex with any animal; sex with one’s sister or half-sister; sex with one’s mother-in-law; striking a person in secret; taking payment to murder someone; and not upholding the words of this Teaching.
Many commentators have pointed out that these curses deal with acts done secretly or privately, acts that society is not likely to discover and punish. Making people vow that they will be accursed if they do any of these things is a preventative measure.
Of course, more secret vices could be added to the list, but since the Israelites had twelve tribes, these twelve serve as examples.
The twelve corresponding blessings are not listed, but according to the Talmud they are simple inverses of the curses, e.g. not making and secretly setting up an idol, etc. However, it’s easy to extrapolate more active descriptions of behaviors that lead to being blessed: worshiping only God (dedicating oneself to a holy path); honoring one’s parents; respecting others’ property; guiding the blind; being just to people who are at a disadvantage in society; having sex only with appropriate partners; refraining from violence, even if you could get away with it; rejecting any rationale for destroying another person; and sticking to ethical behavior while encouraging others to behave ethically.
The blessings and curses still apply to us today. Every time an individual faces a decision between doing something they know is wrong, and doing the right thing instead, that individual stands between Mount Eival and Mount Gerizim. The Levites in the valley represent the conscious ego, reminding us of right and wrong.
Thanks to our inner Levites, we know that if we do something wrong in secret, even if we appear to get away with it, we will still be accursed: we will suffer from guilt, we will feel degraded, and we will isolate ourselves. If we do something good in secret, even if nobody else finds out, we will still be blessed: we will feel full of life, right with the world and right with our souls.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Ki Tav’o (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
At this stage in the month of Elul, we can see that we are coming to the source of all creation in the realm of time and, concomitantly, as we proceed along the path of teshuvah, we can begin to discern a greater opening into the deepest depths of consciousness.
There is great joy when you come to that Land of Unlimited Beginning, where Be-ing who G-ds you connects you to the Stream of Divine Be-ing, and there you can channel its flow while resting within its source. (Devarim 26:1).
The Rebbe Elimelekh finds in this verse a reference to the state of a realized soul that is both resting in the source of Be-ing and also a channel for conducting its healing energy into the most manifest aspects of this very world. The Hebrew word nachalah (conventionally translated as “inheritance”) has the sense of “what is flowing to you.” The very same letters can also be read, hyper-literally, as nachal H’, which means the Stream of Divine Be-ing.
When a person is able to rest within the Land, the two primary aspects of duality, YHVH and Elohim, are united. In this integrated state, the personality dissolves into Be-ing and at the same time, the G-ding aspect of Be-ing fills the already prepared vessel of the soul with an empowering divine flow. The ability to consciously draw down and direct this flow so that it positively affects our experience is the source of deepest healing and transformation. Inspiration and renewal are its fruits. The active wielding of this creative power is a great joy and can enable us to more skillfully play our unique roles in helping make our “worlds” a place where Divinity is revealed.
And then you must select the first fruits… (Devarim 26:2).
In its simplest sense, the commandment of bikkurim initially involved bringing to the Temple offerings of the first fruits of the seven species that grow in the Land of Israel. With this commandment, the Torah teaches us a ritual that celebrates and dramatizes the deep ecological interdependence of Divine source, sacred earth, and spiritually conscious humanity: the primordial union of Heaven, Earth, and the service of the axial beings who unite them.
And then you must select the first fruits… (Devarim 26:2).
Rashi, commenting on the meaning of first gives us a beautiful image: A person goes down to the field and discovers a fig that is just beginning to ripen earlier than the others and binds it with a reed, so it can be identified as a first fruit.
The early ripening fig reminds us of how special a moment it is when one first discovers signs of renewal. In the course of our lives, so much appears routine and, despite our best efforts, most of our development occurs within the unconscious. Whenever we notice that something new actually does occur, it is irresistibly attractive. Our sages, using the example of the freshly ripened (organic) fig, point out a danger that is present in such a moment: we may be so attracted by the fig that we will immediately pop it in our mouths without thinking. In acting so unconsciously, we miss out on a unique opportunity to raise the fruit’s spark, by remaining aware of its divine source.
If, however, we restrain ourselves, binding it with a reed of conscious awareness, the moment may become a powerful gateway to the Land of unlimited Beginning. In pausing to contemplate the miracle of the fig’s ripening, Heaven and Earth are united, and if we are deep enough, we can even enter into the Land in which Be-ing who G-d’s us connects us to the Stream of Divine Be-ing.
The Slonimer Rebbe reminds us of the extraordinary importance that the Midrash attributes to the commandment of first fruits. Sifrey, commenting on this verse, states that as a reward for doing this mitzvah you will have the merit to enter the Land. Bereishit Rabbah even goes further, stating that all of creation exists for the sake of performing the mitzvah of first fruits.
How can first fruits that come from the Land bring us to the Land?
We may assume that Rashi and the Sages, who lived after the destruction of the Temple, were not only talking about first fruits in the literal sense. Indeed, rabbinic sources already interpret first fruits as prayer, the best intentions of the Heart that we can offer to our Divine Source.
From an even deeper qualified non-dual kabbalistic perspective, we learn that a fig, as a fruit whose outside is as delectable as its inside, represents the highest spiritual world of Atzilut. At this level, there is no qelippah (shell) present to conceal the divine nature of all that is manifesting. Thus the world of Atzilut is the world of Hokhmah (Wisdom). In order to enter the non-dual Land of unlimited Beginning and to fulfill the purpose for which all creation exists, we need only to be awake enough to discern with the Eye of Wisdom how first fruits are arising within our own human experience, as emanations emerging from Be-ing who G-ds you.
And then you must discern how first fruits of your humanness are uniquely emanating from the Land of Unlimited Beginning that Be-ing who G-ds you gives to you; by placing yourself in the integrated state, you go to that Place where Be-ing who G-ds you chooses to manifest the Shekhinah. (Devarim 26:2).
Literally, the verse speaks of putting (the first fruits) ba-tene’. The word tene’ is conventionally translated as “basket.” However, an early Hasidic commentary recognizes the word tene’ as an acronym for ta’amim, niqqudot, otiot: the melody, vowel points, and letters of the Torah. All three must be integrated in order to chant the Torah text properly.
These three aspects also represent the three lower worlds, or main realms of manifestation: feeling, thought, and body. From this deeper perspective, the Torah is instructing us here to place ourselves in the integrated state, which can bring us immediately into the Presence of the Shekhinah.
When your inner Priest appears you can confirm and declare before the Divine Presence that I have now reached the Land of unlimited Beginning that Be-ing is bound to bestow upon us through the union of Hokhmah and Binah (Devarim 26:3).
The inner Priest then liberates the integrated self from the power of the personality and causes it to rest as a sacrifice on the altar of Be-ing who G-ds you. (Devarim 26:4).
At that moment we may confess to Be-ing the truth of our lives.
Originating in Hokhmah my soul became lost in the realm that derives from Light, Air, and Water. It descended into a state of constriction, where it was fearful and weak. Nevertheless it evolved and became strong and multifaceted. (Devarim 26:5).
Still my limitations troubled and afflicted me. It was an ordeal to deal with them. When all parts of myself cried out to Be-ing who G-ds me through Hokhmah and Binah, Be-ing was aware of my energy and witnessed my afflictions and tensions. And Be-ing powerfully and decisively liberated me in amazingly wondrous ways. (Devarim 26:6-8).
Be-ing brings us to this very Place and bestows upon us this Land of unlimited Beginning, from which nurture and sweetness flow. (Devarim 26:9).
That is why I am now discerning the first fruits of my own humanness, which emanate from Be-ing, and resting in the Presence of Be-ing who G-ds us… (Devarim 26:10).
Practicing bikkurim, discerning how the first fruits of our humanness emanate from Be-ing who G-ds us, can bring us to that wholeness that the Slonimer Rebbe calls emunat ha-eyvarim, faith that extends beyond the head and the heart until it is present in every cell of our bodies.
You do a full prostration in the Presence of Be-ing who G-ds you. (Devarim 26:10) and in this state of complete immersion in the Stream of Divine Be-ing, (Devarim 26:1) from which nurture and sweetness flow (Devarim 26:9),
You experience the great joy of the total goodness that Be-ing who G-ds you emanates within you and all that surrounds you, integrating the part of the self that is already consciously deployed by the Shekhinah and even that still fearful part that is not yet liberated. (Devarim 26:11).
May we all have the merit to experience first fruits
And to bind and gather them in the basket of the integrated self.
May our offering of first fruits which emanate from the Land
Return us directly to the Land.
May the nurture and sweetness that we draw forth from this teaching
Exhaust all curses and deficiencies before Rosh Ha-Shanah.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
(aka Rabbi Miles Krassen)
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(When You Enter)
DEUTERONOMY 26:1 – 29:8
This portion describes two rituals that the Israelites are commanded to perform when they enter the Land: the ritual of the first fruits, and the ritual of ratification of the Covenant.
THERE IS A TIMELESS MOMENT called “Enlightenment,” that we experience as a beacon shining forth and piercing right through our constructed reality, calling us to awaken, inspiring us to expand beyond imposed boundaries of identity. That timeless moment is our inheritance. It is the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
Ki Tavo means “when you enter.” It describes two amazing rituals enacted in that timeless moment of enlightenment. These sacred ceremonies are performed in “ritual space,” which is a kind of dream-time, so that their power and blessing can enter our ordinary waking consciousness. When God-the-Beloved says to us in the Song of Songs, “Honey and milk are under your tongue,”1 he is reminding us that the Promised Land is so very close. It is there for the tasting whenever we are willing to “enter in” and be intimate with Life. The power of that intimacy is shown to us through an act of ritual. The blessing of ritual-work is that it underlines and thus activates what we already know to be true. It reminds us of that truth we have forgotten amid the clutter, distraction and busyness of our lives.
THE FIRST OF THESE RITUALS holds such a clear imprint of the Freedom of enlightened consciousness that it is recited as part of the Haggadah each year at the Passover Seder – our celebration of Freedom.
We are instructed to do this ritual “when we enter the Land,” when we experience that state of enlightened expansion of consciousness. We gather up the first fruits – the deliciousness and nurturance, even the terror of those experiences – and bring them before God. On our spiritual journey we move through many states of consciousness. Experiences come and go. It is only when we bring awareness to those states (laying their fruit before God) that we can fully receive their blessing and benefit. It is not enough to enter the land. We must bear witness to the miracle of the journey and acknowledge the One who brings us out of slavery, guides us through the wilderness and opens the way to expanded awareness. When the flow from God opens up for us, we are instructed to bring an offering, to return that gift to its source. The flow then becomes circular and we are blessed, purified and made transparent by it.
When engaged in ecstatic practice, the Divine flow opens up and spills into and through us. This moment of blessing is also a danger if we ignore the instruction of Ki Tavo. When the gifts of ecstasy are merely consumed, without giving anything in return, the false-self (or surface identity) is fortified and every experience of spiritual “high” decorates and glorifies that fortification. To prevent this, we are taught that the moment of receiving must be transformed into a moment of offering. Our ritual of offering is a way of acknowledging a truth that can sometimes be obscured. The truth is that our bounty comes from God, and we can connect ourselves to the Source as we receive Her gifts. That connection is even more precious than the gift itself.
The blessing of Ki Tavo is the connection that happens when we offer up the “first fruits” – those flashes of joy or insight that come to us in practice.
THE SECOND RITUAL that is commanded describes a magnificent landscape – a valley surrounded by two great mountains. Six tribes are positioned on one mountain and six on the other. The Levites, arranged around the ark in the center of the valley, alternately call out blessings and curses to the people on opposing mountains who respond with a rousing, “Amen!”2
That awesome scene described in Ki Tavo is a rare view into the inner landscape of enlightened consciousness. When we stand as Levites in the valley of enlightenment, it becomes so clear and obvious what it is that blesses our existence, and connects us with our Divine inheritance, and what it is that curses us, thus separating us from that inheritance. Our normal state of consciousness in contrast, feels like stumbling through the fog, our inner landscape shrouded in bewilderment. As the mists of confusion clear, the blessing and the curse of our lives rise up like mountains, and in the valley between we sing, “Amen.”
In Midrash Raba, Rabbi Judah son of Sima said, “Amen contains three kinds of solemn declaration: oath, consent, and confirmation.”3 The blessing of Ki Tavo enters us when we say, “Amen!” to that moment of enlightenment, that taste of milk and honey. With the saying of “Amen,” we make an oath to be moved by the force of that moment; we consent to its power and confirm its reality.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THE TIMELESS MOMENT of enlightenment, of entering through the doorway to the Promised Land, is shown to us through Ritual and through the Shaarei Tzedek, the “Gates of Justice.”
The first spiritual challenge of Ki Tavo is learning how to enter “ritual space,” how to step outside of Time and access the “Eternal Now” of mythic truth that includes, and yet transcends, our ordinary daily rhythms. The obstacles at the doorway to “ritual space” are cynicism, self-consciousness and the drab, solemn decorum that has so often masqueraded as ritual.
True ritual is serious work, yet cannot be accomplished without a twinkle in the eye. It is holy play, solemn joy. True ritual can be powerful enough to change our perception of Reality, put us face to face with Death… and yet there is a certain unmistakable lightness in it that keeps us just at the edge of laughter.
RITUAL REQUIRES both inner and outer preparation. The inner preparation allows us to set aside the narrow version of “self,” and step into the persona of High Priest or Levitical singer. The outer preparation for ritual involves a complete dedication of the physical realm to the fulfillment of a spiritual purpose. All of the elements – Earth, Water, Fire and Air, (and the aspects of Life they represent) – become our allies. Using our imagination and aesthetic sensibilities concerning color, fragrance, music, and drama, we engage the senses in service to the purpose of a particular ritual.
After all the preparation is completed, the spiritual challenge of ritual is to remain open to the unexpected, the unplanned, and to receive the soul’s wisdom. That wisdom and inspiration can then be embodied and integrated onto our everyday lives.
OFTEN WHEN WE STUDY TORAH, we separate the writings about ritual from the parts that legislate justice… but in the text they are interwoven. No distinction is made between the commandment to enact ritual and the decree for Justice. Between the two great rituals of Ki Tavo, we are given another doorway to the Promised Land. It is the doorway of Justice.
Open for me
the gates of Justice
I will enter them and thank God.
AFTER THE RITUAL OFFERING of the First Fruits, we are commanded to give a special tithe to benefit the Levite, the refugee, the widow, and the orphan. Elsewhere in Torah when we have given tithes, it has always been in lieu of taxes or gifts for the maintenance of the Sanctuary and its Priests. This tithe is different. It is given purely in the name of Justice, to benefit those who have been disconnected from the wealth of the land.
To receive the milk and honey of the Promised Land, to enter into its mystery, we must share the wealth with those who have none.
The spiritual challenge of Ki Tavo is to enter through the gates of Justice by opening our eyes and hearts to the disenfranchised and sharing with them generously the riches we have been given.
1 Song of Songs 4:11
2 Deuteronomy 27:11-26
3 Midrash Raba, Deuteronomy, 7:1
4 Psalm 118:19
5 Tzedakah: literally, “Righteousness,” but colloquially – as here – Charity
6 Based on the verse Deuteronomy 26:10
7 Isaiah 55:12
For Guidelines for Practice please click on link to website.
From Rav Kook
There are several teachings that I connected to on Ki Tavo, so below is the link to Rav Kooks teachings on Devarim. The commentaries on Ki Tavo are found by scrolling down.
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