Remember Your Story

September 1, 2018

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

violation there.

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

a plan.

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

occurrences.

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

survivors.

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

go home.”

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.

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