Heeding the Call to Social Justice in Canada
Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim, the bringing of the first fruits of the harvest as an offering to God. When the Israelites brought their baskets to the priest, they would offer a recitation—one that made its way into the Passover Haggadah:
“Arami Oved Avi—My father was a fugitive Aramean.
He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there;
but there he became a great and very populous nation.
The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us;
they imposed heavy labour upon us.
We cried out to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors,
and the Eternal heard our plea…
and freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand,
with an outstretched arm and awesome power,
and by signs and portents,
bringing us to this place and giving us this land.
Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil
which You, Eternal One, have given me”
I find it fascinating that when we brought these gifts to God, we did not offer a blessing of thanksgiving (although later on the Rabbis created one for just this purpose!). Instead, we were commanded to recite our history and remind ourselves that our connection to the land starts with our ancestors, and comes with a history of slavery, oppression, and redemption. The rest of the portion teaches us the rewards of adhering to God’s covenant – the laws that guide us in creating a society of justice, decency, and compassion.
I grew up in the United States, and our family emigrated to Canada in 2006. There are many things our countries share, including our remarkably diverse populations, and vast, beautiful landscapes. But there are some differences: We Canadians like ketchup-flavored potato chips, and we excel at curling (although given the last Winter Olympics, Americans seems to be getting better at that!).
Our Reform Movement in Canada is different in some ways as well – but we all share a deep commitment to tikkun olam—to social justice—aimed at repairing our broken world. In both countries, Reform Jews work to end poverty and hunger, to slow the effects of climate change, to bring peace at home and in Eretz Yisrael, and to put an end to hatred, inequality, and discrimination.
Through our Canadian Council for Reform Judaism’s National Social Action Committee, we focus on Canadian social challenges: child poverty, refugee resettlement, and advocating for the Aboriginal community. One of the social justice initiatives that many Canadian synagogues have adopted is the Indigenous Land Acknowledgement. Very much like the recitation at the beginning of Ki Tavo, we acknowledge the history of the land and those who came before us. The Indigenous Land Acknowledgement is also offered in our public schools, government institutions, cultural organizations, and many other places of worship throughout the country. At Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, Ontario, we announce at services:
At Temple Har Zion we acknowledge that we are situated on Traditional Territories and Treaty Lands. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation. As Jews and as a community, may we always strive to fulfill our Jewish value of tzedek tirdof – the pursuit of justice in our society.
This is the history of the land on which the greater Toronto area is built, and I am grateful to the congregations in the region that inspired the language my congregation has chosen. Ki Tavo gave the Israelites the opportunity to relive their history as they acknowledged the land and abundance they were given by God. When we recite our Indigenous Land Acknowledgement in Canada, whether in synagogue, at school, or in Parliament, we remember that we were not the First Nations here, and that we are who we are as a Canadian people thanks to those who came before us. Perhaps the day will come when many more Reform congregations will offer such an acknowledgement, remembering that the land we enjoy is never truly ours but is a gift from God for us to appreciate and protect.