On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Ki Tavo: Not If, But When

Ki Tavo translates to “when you get there.” the phrasing is “when,” and not “if,” because the Torah reminds us that there was never a doubt that the Israelites would reach The Land of Milk and Honey. Still, Parashat Ki Tavo serves as an important reminder of who the Israelites were: wanderers. In this episode of On the Other Hand, listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs describe why this point, and this parashah as a whole, are so important.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he has a special guest and some weeks he just shares his own perspective. But On the Other Hand always provides a modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, in episode 85, Rabbi Jacobs teaches about parasha Ki Tavo. He wonders whether or not ritual and ethics really can be fused together.

This week we focus our attention on parasha Ki Tavo, towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, which means towards the end of the of the Torah, which means of course also pretty close to the end of the Jewish year as we anticipate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the beginning of a brand new year. The words Ki Tavo mean "when you get there." I love this. It doesn't say sort of the conditional normal Jewish way of talking, "If you get there, if you think of it, if you'd like."

When you get there, there's absolutely no doubt in the mind of the Torah's voice that as we approach the promised land and that's where the journey is remember in the Book of Deuteronomy they're not quite in the Promised Land but they're on their way and they're close. And there are plenty of people who are saying, "I don't think we're going to ever get there." I think this is just a journey that goes on and on and never arrives in our destination. But the Torah is adamant. When you get there, you will, so keep the faith. Some of us are having that feeling about this year 5777. If we get to this New Year. No, we will, it's coming. Ready or not. But the most amazing ritual is found in the opening of the parasha from Chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy. It says when you get there here's what you've got to do. When you get there to the new land. It's going to be a land flow of milk and honey and you're going to be completely taken by its beauty by the things that you grow and the new life that you create there.

And the Torah's afraid that our ancestors would forget who they were. They would forget where they came from. They would forget the core of the Jewish experience. So the ritual they create is so unbelievably powerful because it reminds us of one of the most fundamental moral teachings. So it says when you get there and you have this ritual you have to bring the first fruits of the land. Not the fruits down the road of the end of the harvest, bring the first fruits. And you are to go to the temple and you are to carry the first fruits in a basket and the Mishnah, codified the year 200 CE gives a more detailed: you put that basket filled with the first fruits of your agricultural harvest, put on your shoulder carry it in and then you are to recite the following words, "My father was a wandering Aramean."

Now you may recognize that phrase in Hebrew we know the phrase "Arami oved avi." My father, my ancestor, was a wandering Aramean. You may remember that from the Passover Seder it is the core of the haggadah's telling of the Jewish narrative of our exodus from Egypt. It is also recited as part of the commemoration of Shavuot, a few weeks later the Jewish holiday that comes after Pesach in the late spring. And here we are always just before the new year and we're reading this section, what will amount to a third time. It's telling us that the key ritual moments we should remember that we weren't always people who had homes and jobs and bank accounts and investments and things. We were poor nomadic wanderers. It's a pretty stark reminder. The Torah seems to understand pretty well that we all have a kind of spiritual amnesia. We could actually think that this life that we're living, well, this is who we are. And over and over again really three times in the course of the Jewish year we are told to tell this story.

Now it goes on the section from Deuteronomy goes on says my ancestor was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there but there became a great and very populous nation and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, oppressed us. They imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried out to the Eternal God of our ancestors and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand.

So this story that we tell is a story that we want to forget. It's a story that we have to remember. Why do we have to remember? Because it reminds us to be both humble and empathetic and responsive to those who are in that plight today. The refugee who has nothing but the clothes on their back. The refugee who hasn't arrived at any promised land and all the gates and all the doors to all the lands of promise are locked shut. So this ritual reminds us you know that ritual isn't some separate thing we do that's called being religious and then the world is that other thing we do that's called being secular.

Here in this ritual, ethics and ritual are fused, I mean they're absolutely seared together. And if you want the power of ritual to be implanted, this is where we do it because I know people will say to me and you know I don't think I'm going to a high holiday services I'm not really the ritual kind of Jewish person, I love the ethics. I love the stuff. It's really about doing going out and fixing the brokenness in the world. I always like to kind of stop those conversations. Do you know about the ritual in Deuteronomy and Ki Tavo? Do you know about the ritual that actually so deeply fuses activism and ethics that you can actually separate them? They said I don't know which one is that. And of course, it's this reminder, holding our first fruits. Maybe it's the first paycheck from a job that we just got.

Maybe it's the first thing that we made in our new studio for the artist. Maybe it's the first dance we choreographed for a choreographer right. But bringing that first thing and being filled with a sense of pride. Look what I have. I have this basket of creativity and accomplishment. And at that very moment say, but I remember. I remember when things were pretty difficult. I remember when we weren't growing or doing or accomplishing. We were simply longing for a place that we could call our own. I love this text and I love it's teaching.

Moses Maimonides in the 12th century in Spain and his Guide for the Perplexed. He says this ritual, and he describes it, is the basis for generosity and humility. Maimonides says "Offering the first fruits of the harvest is a way to accustom people to be generous and a means of limiting the human appetite for more and more and more. But of property, people who amass fortunes live in comfort often fall victim to self-centered excesses and arrogance. Bringing the first fruits and reciting the prayer promotes humility." I don't know what you're hoping about for the new year but I'm hoping for a lot of things. I'm praying for a lot of things. I think we all are. Praying that we'll all know the spirit of generosity and will also be all reminded to be more humble.

And to have a sense of empathy for those who are suffering around us. And if you don't notice people are suffering around us it's because we got our eyes shut and our ears covered. This is a moment when we see suffering whether it's the famine in East Africa. Whether it's the plight of 65 million refugees worldwide. Whether it's those in our own community who don't have the blessings of homes. The homeless who don't have the blessings of healthcare, don't have the blessings of family love. Ki Tavo we're going to get to that new year and some of us are going to enter that year reminded as Deuteronomy reminds us to ground ourselves in our own stories but also in the collective story of our people.

Martin Buber the great 20th century Jewish philosopher who moved from Germany to Israel became a remarkable professor. He loves this phrase Buber said, "Instead of saying our fathers were fugitive Arameans, we say MY father. What we have here," says Martin Buber, "is a merging of the people and the individual into one. So this is my story. But you know what? It's your story too. It's our story. Let's remind each other. Let's remind our people. We May be a people that has known particularly in the last generation wonderful success, wonderful accomplishments. We should celebrate those. But let's put them in a proverbial basket. And let's bring them to Temple. Let's bring them to the sacred places and then let's proudly and humbly and publicly remind ourselves that we were those poor nomadic wanderers. So when we see those people around us and in the media. They are us, we are them. So Ki Tavo we will get to that new year. We will get to that promised land but the only way we're really going to get there with spiritual strength is to be reminded about who we really are.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand, 10 minutes of Torah. If you like what you've heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes where we would love for you to rate and review. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including ritual, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week. l'hitraot.