Ki Tavo 5755
I am sure that you noticed an improvement in the weather in the last ten days or so. It is mid September and the days are getting a touch shorter and a bit cooler. It is getting to the point that you can actually open the car's window when you go to work in the morning. So you can imagine my surprise, when I went to the cemetery today, at about noon, to be hit by a strong and punishing sun and temperatures in the mid ninties.
Now, I really should have expexted it. After all, this is Shabbat eve of parshat Ki Tetze -- a time that is etched in my memory... It is the anniversary of the Bat Mitzvah of my oldest daughter, Tahl. She was, without a doubt, my most difficult student in a career that spanned, even then, some twenty years of b'nai Mitzvah. Why, you ask -- well, it is because she WAS the first of my own flesh and blood that I was training for this special occasion. Of course, to make things just a little more interesting and exciting on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, the weather turned on the steam, giving us the hottest Labor Day on record for Butler, Pennsylvania. My synagogue did not have air-conditioning, of course -- heck, it didn't have cross-ventilation. I believe that the weather is a tactile aid to the message of the Torah for this portion.
You see, twice a year we have a very unpleasant Torah reading: the first comes when we read Bekhukkotai, at the end of Leviticus, and the second is, of course, this Shabbat, parshat Ki Tavo, almost at the end of Deuteronomy. Both contain the section called the Tokhakhah, which means Chastisement. It consists of a list of warnings: if you behave in a good manner, such and such good things will happen. If you do not behave well, if you stray, such and such evil things will happen.
How do Jews react to these sections? Naturally, we dont like them. Oh, we dont mind the rewards. But we dont like the possible punishments. Since we cannot delete these sections from the Torah, the Torah reader reads them quickly and quietly, as if we do not really have to hear them -- and surely we do not need to emphasize them. The reader may not stop in the middle, so as not to "bring a blessing" from the end of a reading and a beginning of the next to the list of bad things that will happen. this list is an embarassment to us, and an opening to critics and non-believers who ask -- if God promised you "free will," why does he threaten you with evil decrees if you choose not to follow His teachings... And anyhow, who, in this day and age, believes that God punishes the guilty?
When there is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the problem becomes even more difficult. You dont want to give the "bad" aliyot to the family or friends of the celebrant -- and if not them, who? Another problem is, how can you talk about evil to the good? And, at a happy occasion such as a Bat Mitzvah, you KNOW the whole congregation is made up of Tzadikim. So, the Rabbi is on a "hot spot..."
So you see, the problem is, how can we, in this enlightened age, talk of sin and punishments? In short, Bar or Bat Mitzvah of not, all of us, today and tomorrow, what do we do with the concept of reward and punishment?
In the past, religion was so cruel, so punitive, so crude in its portrayal of God as the vengeful tyrant in the sky, that a reaction, even a revulsion, against this attitude was unavoidable. The same is true for society -- it was cruel, too. Hitting teachers, punishing fathers, screaming mothers, filled our childhoods and traumatized us to the core. Yes, I remember my own childhood, and how filled it was with violence of all kind. In retrospect, I think that now-a-days all my teachers, my parents and my relatives would have been jailed for child abuse... I resolved, back then, that I will NEVER raise my voice at my children, and for sure I would not raise a hand to hit them. Sometimes, in reaction to such an upbringing, parents offer rewards alone to their kids, sparing them the "pain of their childhood," without punishment ever entering the picture. However, this is not necessarily the right way to raise kids. I found out in my own experience that discipline is something kids need, and even want -- to have definition to their life. When one of my kids continued to make the wrong choices in his young life, I made a poster of a law of physics, and placed it on the wall in his room. It read, "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction."
After all, as with so much else, its all a matter of semantics. Change the words, and disagreements turn to agreements. What I am proposing is the simple substitution of the words "effects and consequences," for "rewards and punishment." Can we deny, under any rational system that actions have consequences? We may differ with the Torah laws of cause and effect, but can we deny the laws of cause and effect? Can we deny that drugs are dangerous. Can we deny that ignorance is deadening? Can we deny that the immediate gratification of all desire is self defeating from the viewpoint of pleasure itself? Can we deny that giving children everything they think they want, will kill their initiative, rob them of discipline, condemn them to failure and defeat?
The traditional view of Torah says that these rewards and punishments, these dire predictions, were written by Moses with the power of prophecy, before the fact. The critical approach says that the authors of these texts wrote after the fact, describing in retrospect, what actually did happen in Jewish history. For that matter, if we simply substitute the word history for faith, do we not have a confirmation of the doctrine of reward and punishment, the law of consequences? Does not the principle of cause and effect, reward and punishment, come into play when we regard the rise and fall of nations, when we contemplate the success and failure of individuals (including ourselves) that depended on "luck," but also on wise or foolish decisions and actions?
Thats all this portion, and our message, is saying to you. Heed the teachings of your parents, your religion, your Hebrew School, your training, and you will proceed in life, with intelligence, mercy, good will, to create for yourself, and your generation, a better society, a better world, a more peaceful outcome for human history than we now face. Follow the path upon which you have been set, and your Jewish being, your name, your identity, your Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificate, will mean something to you, rather than being an unpleasant memory, or a trifle to be forgotten, the sooner the better. Every thought, every word, every action, in your mind, in your mouth, in your body, has consequences, in health, sanity, happiness, achievement, or disease, frustration, misery, and emptiness. Reward and Punishment. Cause and Effect. Consequences. All that the unpleasant Tokhakhah is saying is this: you sleep in the bed you make. You eat the meal you prepare. Mi shelo tarakh be'erev Shabbat lo yokhal beshabbat -- he who does not prepare on Shabbat eve will have nothing to eat on Shabbat
Ki Tavo 5756
This week's Torah portion is "Ki Tavo" which translates to "as you come." and this names is derived from the text, in Dvarim 26, " When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us."
This is a fine concept, but I would like to point out to you how much of the meaning is lost intranslation. I shall concentrate on the first word, "ki." I like to tell my students in Hebrew class -- whether it is little kids or adult students that "ki" is a key word in Hebrew. You see, the first meaning of the word is "because" -- a very essential word. It answers the most often asked question "why?" I cannot begin to tell you how many times, as we were raising our children, we have used this word to answer the constant questions the kids asked: "why, Dad..." "Why do we have to go to sleep?" "Why must we eat the spinach?" "Why is that lady so fat?" "Why... Why... Why..." Well, "Because." "Because I said so." "Because that's the way it is..." "Just because" -- Enough.
However, in Hebrew, "ki" is so much more than that. Ki is an elegant word, a beginning of a tale. It is also a word of certainty. "It is a fact that this is the way it is, and therefore, as it is, so shall it lead to other things being what they will be." Here is a case in point, and Torah: "Ki tavo'u el ha'aretz unta'tem kol etz..." "When [and as and because] you will come into the land you shall plant all types of trees."
"Ki" is also "that." "Vatere Hagar ki harata..." "When Hagar saw that she had conceived" -- again, there was a cause and effect. Hagar was willing to become a surrogate mother for Sarah's child which the latter could not conceive. Because of her agreement, she became with child, "ki harata" -- and she began to despise her mistress.
When God called Moshe to deliver Israel out of Egypt, Moses asked, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He [God] said, "Ki eh'ye imakh vzeh lekha ha'ot ki anokhi shlakhtikha" -- "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." Twice, in the Hebrew text, we have our "key" word, and neither time is it translated as "because." The first time, "Ki eh'ye imakh," is read "I will be with you;" and the second time, "ki anokhi shlakhtikha" is read "it is I who sent you!" What, then is "ki?" It is the purpose and the direction evident in "I will be with you" -- because it is God who will be with Moshe; the second time, "ki anokhi shlakhtikha" can be read as a great statement of power, "for it is I, by my power and by my ownership of all that exists, who has sent you."
We even find our "key" word in God's statements at Sinai -- twice. The first time is is half-hidden in the first word of the Statements: "Anokhi -- I am [the Lord your God...]" The Hebrew fro I is "Ani." The word given in the statement, "Anokhi -- I am [the Lord your God...]" suggests more than just "I" -- it is what I call "the I of purpose." I am the Lord, by design, not by accident." "I am the Lord, woner of heaven and earth, responsible for everything, and yet taking care personally of the smallest detail." "Anokhi, I, and by My choice to take you and make you Mine." And again in the fourth statement, "Ki sheshet yamim asa adona'y et hashama'yim ve'et ha'aretz -- For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them" -- again a statement of great positive power and purpose, stating for all times God's ownership of this world which He has created. He is so great, so powerful -- he could have made the world in an instant, but took six days "because" he wanted to make the Shabbat on the seventh.
Last week we read "ki tetze" -- as you leave. As we take leave of the Jewish year 5756, let us remember the difference between fatalism and our faith in God. It is a "key" difference. We don't believe that things happen -- we believe God makes them happen. We don't believve in blind obedience, but rather we are prompted to seek God while He may be found. We do not follow blindly, we study the Torah and seek to understand with our mind "ki hem kha'yeynu ve'orekh yameynu" -- for they are our life and the length of our days. May God's blessing of purpose be a key to our existence. Amen
Ki Tavo 5758
This is Shabbat eve of parshat Ki Tavo, and tomorrow we shall read in the Torah the 26th chapter of Dvarim, beginning with the following text: "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house. When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns." [Deu.26:1-12]
There is a very profound lesson taught in this passage -- a lesson that has nothing to do with the Children of Israel arriving from Egypt. In fact, the message is universal and timeless. Put in its simplest form, it would read as follows, "when you have arrived, don't forget where you came from and what it felt like to be there -- and don't forget who helped you to arrive where you now are."
All too many of us tend to complain bitterly about our lot it life. We bemoan the fact that we don't have "what everyone else has;" we are upset about parents who don't understand us and don't provide for our "needs;" we complain about bosses and fellow workers who slow us down and or push us to work faster and harder. We feel, nay, we know that can be so much more, do so much more, be so much happier -- "if only" -- if we had a better break in life, better (richer, smarter) parents, better teachers in school, a chance at a better education, a chance at business or a better position with higher pay. These claims are all excuses for what we don't have, what we have failed to achieve.
Then there are success stories. There are those who start up with a silver spoon in their mouths. We all know them (and often hate them)... There are those who succeed in life, in spite of humble beginning. We know such people (and often hate them, too) -- and we are sure that if we were given the same breaks in life, we would have done so much more than they... Sometimes, we are the ones who are the object of people's interest and envy. Funny, just because we are industrious and talented, everyone thinks that we got what we got without reason and without being worthy of it. We are the ones who worked hard. We are the ones who thought of the idea that became the success that it became. We tried again and again, we worked night and day, we did not give up, we... we... we...
The shoe is on the other foot. Now we look at all the "failures" out there, and we sneer at them. "If you were more like me, if you were more industrious, if you were better prepared for life..." Etc., etc...
You have arrived! Now the ones you left behind are so far behind that you can't ever see them, you don't remember their names, and you don't want to know them -- because you have nothing in common...
Remember! Remember that you came from the same source as the rest of us, that we all had the same parents, the original parents, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzkhak and Rivka, Yaakov Rakhel and Leah. We have come from the slavery of Egypt and the freedom of Yehuda and Yisrael. We are the progeny of kings and prophets, priests and Levites. We need to be brothers to our fellow Jews and a banner to all people, "nes lago'yim." Then, and only then, will we work with God and serve him for the purpose that He had in mind.
Ki Tavo 1999
This Shabbat we read in the Torah parshat Ki Tavo, the portion which begins with the words, and tomorrow we shall read in the Torah the 26th chapter of Dvarim, beginning with the following text: "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us." [Deut. 26:1-3] This passage is followed by more mitzvot - rules of behavior for the good Jewish life. The text reiterates, "This day the Lord your God has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep and do them with all your heart, and with all your soul." [Deut. 26:16] The message of God's mitzvot becomes "physical" in our portion, as we read instruction for building of a commemorative monument, "And Moses with the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives you, that you shall set you up great stones, and plaster them with plaster; And you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah, when you have passed over, that you may go in to the land which the Lord your God gives you, a land that flows with milk and honey; as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you." [Deut. 27:1-3] and a little further in the same chapter we read God's plan for a ritual blessing on the people: "And Moses charged the people the same day, saying, These shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people, when you are come over the Jordan; Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin; And these shall stand upon Mount Ebal to curse; Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall speak, and say to all the men of Israel with a loud voice. . . " [Deut. 27:11-14]
You will note how, again and again, the Torah text tells us that Moshe, our great teacher, commanded or instructed us to do certain things, behave in a certain manner, and live up to a certain standard. The question that needs to be asked is, 'how do we go about doing this?' And it just so happens that between the exhortation to build the monument (27:1-3) and the ceremony of blessing (27:11-14), we find a very peculiar passage that reads, "Vaydaber moshe v'hakohanim halvi'yim el kol yisrael le'mor hasket ushma yisrael... And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying, Take heed, and listen, O Israel; this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, and do his commandments and his statutes, which I command you this day." [Deut. 27:9-10] The first thing about this passage is that it is not a command from God or from Moshe. Moshe, not alone but with the priests, in all probability his nephew El'azar and maybe Pinkhas son of El'azar, speak to the people together and direct them on how to master the "life of mitzvot." They say, "hasket ushma yisrael," which is translated --'Take heed, and listen, O Israel' -- but this translation is not quite correct. We know that 'ushma' means 'and listen.' The word 'hasket' does not appear anywhere else in our Scriptures, not even once. Therefore, its meaning was a mystery from early in the age of Torah interpretation. Now, some interpreters suggested that this word was made up of two parts, 'hass' and 'ket.' They read the 'hass' as an exhortation to silence, and 'ket' as a form of 'kita', meaning a group that learns together -- a class. Thus they said, "hasket" calls the people to be quiet and join a learning group to "shma" -- listen and hear the words of Torah, and its interpretation. The commentators see this as an invitation to Israel to become a nation of scholars who spend some of their time in study, no matter what they do to earn their daily bread.
In researching this passage, and particularly the "mystery" word I have discovered two other possibilities for explaining this word. The first interpretation of the word comes from the Arabic, where the word for 'shut-up' is 'ooscoot'. Even without familiarity with Arabic, one can hear the similarity of sound between "hasket" and 'ooscoot'. The second interpretation deals with the same issue of finding a match to the "mystery" word -- only this time we stay in the Hebrew and look for different vowels for the same consonants. This avenue of research leads up to the word "hasookota." This interpretation may be the one that makes the most sense. It would render the passage, "And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying, [go] to your huts, and listen, O Israel; this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, and do his commandments and his statutes, which I command you this day." The habitations of Israel are the place of study and of practice of God's mitzvot. That is what Bilam saw when he was driven to pronounce the words, "How goodly are your tents, Ya'akov, your dwelling places, oh Israel." [Num. 24:5] That is what Isaiah had in mind when he spoke the words we reed this Shabbat in our Haftarah, the portion from the Prophets: "Koomi ori ki va orekh, ukhevod adona'y ala'yikh yizrakh. -- Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you." [Isaiah 60:1]
May we always be open to receive God's teaching and may our homes always be academies for the study of His truth.
Ki Tavo 5760
Last week we read the portion of Ki Tetze meaning when you go out -- and this week we shall read the portion of Ki Tavo meaning when you come, or when you arrive. There is something very symbolic and something very real about the succession of portions from one week to the next as seen in last week and this week: Time is quite fleeting! You hardly have a chance to leave, and already you are arriving. You barely have the opportunity to note an event, and it is already history. Oh, I know how slowly time passes when you want to see something come to pass. You know the old saying: a watched pot does not boil... Yet, look at how you planned and prepared for an event in your life: a bat mitzvah, a wedding, the birth of a child - all have a gestation period. Yet, before you turn around that time of waiting is complete, the event occurs and is over. It is forgotten, or at least left behind us.
This is precisely why we need to imbue the real events of our lives with special significance and augmented meaning, to slow down the flow of time sufficiently to be able to smell the roses - to take note of a long-waited-for event so as to affix it more firmly in our memory. This need was made manifest to me when I took a twenty hour road trip to meet for the first time my newborn granddaughter Eliana Dora. The duration of the trip and the difficulty of staying awake and driving that distance became a tool that made the event more real, more something that I can make my own. This is how we need to etch other occasions in our journey of discovery and experience of a lifetime.
The Torah tells us that when we arrive, we need to invite God to participate in our achievement. And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it; That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name there. And you shall go to the priest who shall be in those days, and say to him, I declare this day to the Lord your God, that I have come to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us. And the priest shall take the basket from your hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. [Deu. 26:1-4] We recognize our history, gaining a perspective of our achievement. We look back to see where we came from and how far we have traveled. We bring some of the fruit of our success to share with God. Doing this puts our experience and our achievement into perspective. We understand what has happened to us, and we come to realize that it happened because of our work wedded to our circumstances. Life in meant to be enjoyed one day at a time. Still, our accumulation of experience is manifested in our achievement, in our history. We need to share that history and celebrate it by elevating it through the spiritual sharing of it with God, who has been our fellow traveler throughout the ages, our guide and instructor, our port in the storm and refuge in times of upheaval.
Ki Tavo 5764 Bar Mitzvah of Ryon
This week’s text from the Torah begins with the
following words: “And it shall be, when you come in to the land which
the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in
it; That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you
shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it
in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose
to place his name there. And you shall go to the priest who shall be in those
days, and say to him, I declare this day to the Lord your God, that I have come
to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us. And the priest
shall take the basket from your hand, and set it down before the altar of the
Lord your God. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God, A wandering
Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with
a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous; And the Egyptians
dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery;” [Deu.
We learn a very important lesson from this text. The worship of God, who gave the Promised Land to the people who came out of the bondage of Egypt, the seed of Abraham, was to be a constant reminder of the unique nature of the Israelites. All nations begin with humble roots and go through a period of growth and development before they become a nation, a strong force in the land of their habitation. They carve for themselves a sphere of influence, and they live there for as long as they can keep their purpose clear and as long as there is no force stronger than their force that tries to overpower and subjugate them. When such a force appears or evolves - the nation is overpowered and swept away.
This pattern is natural and recurring. People become nations; nations rise and enjoy their time in the limelight - and then they decline and disappear. The Children of Israel are different. They did not begin and grow in the native soil of their land. Abraham came from Ur of the Caldese, only to move to another land at the behest of God, to put roots in that land which would be severed in the third generation as Ya’akov went down to dwell in Egypt for four hundred years, only to reemerge again from bondage and reenter that land promised to Abraham.
And that is only the first step in the long journey of the family of our patriarches.
All of which teaches us a simple fact: our existence is nothing less than a miracle - or maybe we should say a whole series of miracles spanning four thousand years of the existence of the family of Abraham and Sarah, Yitzkhak and Rivkah, Ya’akov, Rachel and Leah.
You, Ryon, like all that came before you, are a miracle! Your birth, in America at the end of the twentieth century, after a third of world Jews were wiped off the face of the earth by an enemy bound to finally prove that God does not miraculously preserve our people from one generation to another – became part of the miracle of survival, and the proof that they were wrong and God is faithful to His promise. The fact that you are celebrating your Bar Mitzvah today, after you were ready to give up on yourself, declaring that you just could not master the language, the music, the pressure of a schedule of study to prepare for this event... What can we say?
Being Jewish, we accept the miracle, confirm our basic belief that all along we fully expected that it will happen this way. And we give thanks to God for continuing to perform miracles for us.
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