Remember Your Story
Shabbat shalom. Parshat “Ki Tavo” has some interesting instructions
for the Jews to carry out upon arriving in Israel. One on which I’d like to
focus has to do with the bringing of the first fruits; another is the altar and
ceremony around Shechem.
Let’s review how the parasha begins, in paraphrase:
26:1 And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your
God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, 2 that
you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring
from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put
[them] into a basket and go to the place which the Lord, your God, will
choose to have His Name dwell there. 3 And you shall come to the kohen . .
. . 4 And the kohen will take the basket from your hand, laying it before the
altar of the Lord, your God. 5 And you shall call out and say before the Lord,
your God, "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went
down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and
there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation.
The Aramean text of course made it into the Passover Hagada . And
you’ll recall that it continues with the retelling of how the Jews suffered in
Egypt, and of their liberation. 26:9:
And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land
flowing with milk and honey.
And this is what you’re supposed to talk about when presenting the
bikkurim , the first fruits, as opposed to expressing thanksgiving for a
bountiful crop. Strange.
A second odd mitzva : The Jews are commanded, upon entering the
Promised Land, to go to Mount Ebhal, overlooking Shechem from the
north, and erect an altar inscribed with the text of the Torah. Some of the
tribes of Israel are to stand on Mount Ebhal and utter a series of curses
about what will befall the children of Israel if they don’t joyfully carry out
all of G-d’s commandments. Other tribes are to stand opposite, on Mount
Gerizim to the south, enumerating the blessings that a Jewish nation
obedient to God’s will will enjoy. This all takes place inland, far from the
entry point to the Promised Land at the Jordan River.
So, you’re going out of your way, literally, to build an altar and talk
about various what-ifs, instead of the seemingly more logical celebrating
your arrival in Eretz Israel. And mind you, the Torah is already telling you
specifically which what-ifs you’re going to say--it’s predicting precisely the
words of prediction! Again -- strange.
The An-Aramean-sought-to-destroy-my-forefather formulation at the
first-fruits ceremony is a look backwards to Labhan and Jacob. The
blessings and curses at the mountains are forward-looking. It’s also a
backwards-looking ceremony, as Abraham had previously built an altar at
Shechem, and Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi had avenged their sister Dina’s
The bikkurim ceremony isn’t concerned with the here-and-now of the
successful harvest. The mountain ceremony isn’t concerned with finally
entering the Promised Land. Despite the fact that both of those are hugely
important events, the attendant rituals are instead concerned with history,
with the eternal.
When one verbally traces, during the bikkurim ceremony, the history
of the Jewish nation from Jacob, through slavery in Egypt, to entering the
Promised Land, one is talking about G-d’s involvement with mankind,
about G-d having a plan in mind for human beings and thus creating a
covenant with them. One is being mindful that, though the present is a
moment of joy--there has, after all, been a successful harvest--the past was
not always so great. But ultimately G-d showed himself to care and to have
The curses and blessings on Mounts Ebhal and Gerizim are a look
forward. Rather than celebrating because we’ve arrived in Eretz Israel,
we’re going to peer into the future and see what happens when the Jewish
nation does or doesn’t serve the Almighty properly. In other words, we’re
focusing on what’s eternally important in human behavior, as opposed to
the here-and-now excitement of having arrived home.
Even the grammar of the Bible reflects this idea of constantly looking
forward and backward, not just at the moment. In Biblical Hebrew, past
tense is used for future actions, while the future tense is used for past
In Biblical times, other peoples were more concerned with the
here-and-now. They’d perform a religious ritual to secure a good harvest,
for example, or celebrate with relief when the winter solstice affirmed that
the sun wouldn’t disappear and the days would start lengthening.
By contrast, Jewish rituals like those found in Ki Tavo are concerned
with perpetual matters. When you bring the bikkurim , you are to recall
deliverance from slavery to freedom; similarly you are to recite the same
words of recollection each year at Passover. And you are to do this in every
generation, and regardless of whether you’re Jewish by birth or not. All
Jews, no matter their ancestry, are to speak about the the Aramean who
oppressed their own father, about their own exodus from Egypt. Every Jew
is tasked with pondering the universal principles implied by those stories.
Each year at this time, I’m challenged in my professional life to look
backwards and forwards, to recall history and take the long view, as
opposed to, or perhaps in addition to, focusing on the present. August is
when my school year starts. Especially in middle school, you experience all
kinds of unexpected challenges. Encounters with students whom you don’t
yet know well can be exciting; they can also be frustrating and sometimes
even dispiriting. In the teaching profession, it’s inevitable that you’ll
undergo experiences with challenging students that can make you question
whether teaching is what you’re cut out for. It’s vital to understand at such
times that a negative encounter with a young soul can, with time and effort,
be turned around into a constructive and positive relationship. Looking
back on past successes, and pondering how much students can grow over
time, are sometimes hard to do if you’ve had a tough day. But not only can
they help your spirit, they’re vital for a teacher trying to give his or her best
to the students. The same can certainly be said for every profession.
I’d like to close with the following memory from Rabbi Shlomo
Riskin. Having never before davened at a hasidic shul, he spent the
morning of Shabbat Ki Tavo in 1952, when he was 12 years old, at the shul
of the Klausenberger Rebbe in Brooklyn. The Rebbe was a Holocaust
survivor known for his piety and herculean efforts on behalf of the
In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant
the Warnings in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but
unmistakably, the Yiddish word “hecher – louder,” came from the
direction of the the lectern upon which the rebbe was leaning at the
eastern wall of the synagogue.
The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the
congregants looked up from their Bibles in questioning and even
mildly shocked silence. Could they have heard their rebbe correctly?
Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom
and chant the tochacha out loud? The Torah reader continued to read
in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he
thought he heard. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to
face the stunned congregation and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained
expression on his face and fire blazing in his eyes: “I said louder! Read
these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear, we’ve already
experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let
Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know
that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!” The rebbe turned back to
the wall, and the Torah reader continued slowly chanting the
cantillation out loud. I was trembling, with tears cruising down my
cheeks, my body bathed in sweat. I had heard that the rebbe lost his
wife and 11 children in the Holocaust – but refused to sit shiva for
them because he could not spare a moment from the task of trying to
save Jewish lives by enabling them to leave Europe. He himself
refused a visa for America, until the majority of his hassidim had been
saved. His words seared into my heart.
I could hardly concentrate on the conclusion of the Torah
reading. “It’s time for Him to send the blessings!” After the Additional
Service ended, the rebbe rose to speak. His words were again short
and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love leaving an
indelible expression on my mind and soul. “My beloved brothers and
sisters,” he said, “Pack up your belongings. We must make one more
move – hopefully the last one. God promises that the blessings which
must follow the curses will now come. They will come – but not from
America. The blessings will only come from Israel. It is time for us to
And so Kiryat Sanz – Klausenberg was established in Netanya
where the rebbe built a Torah Center as well as the Laniado Medical
Center. And an impressionable 12-year-old boy received his first – and
most profound – lesson in modern Zionism.
So, a different way of looking back and looking forward. However
you wish to approach Ki Tavo , it serves as an important reminder of
living not only in the moment, but also looking back and peering forth,
staying cognizant of eternal truths and values. Shabbat shalom.