Archive for the '5.07 Ki Tavo' Category

Fruit of Liberation

At the start of Parshat Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Bikkurim offerings given in the Temple. There we read:

Bikkurim: First Fruits - Torah Insights - Parshah

While I am interested in the nature of the Temple ritual of giving these first fruit, I am even more interested that this Mitzvah is described to them while they were still in the wilderness. What would this message have meant to a nation of slaves who have never been in this land?

While they were slaves they had nothing. They did not own their time and it is not clear what kind of possessions they had. This is a powerful shift of mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance. They were being asked to imagine a time when they would have what to offer and donate.

That being said it is still really hard to imagine conquering and building a country. It is easier to imagine the time when they will have settled down and you have their first fruit. Imaging that moment of expressing gratitude and making a small gift of fruit itself must have been liberating.

There is profound brilliance of the Rabbis to make these passages of Bikkurim the backbone of of the Passover Seder. For millennia we have been carrying on a conversation about liberation. The shift from scarcity to abundance is critical. But this itself might not be possible. People need smaller incremental wins to see progress and imagine a new reality.

It would have been too much for anyone to just say they had liberation for it to be true. We all need small baskets of progress that help us reflect on the fruit of our liberation.


Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in a letter:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

I was thinking about this quote recently in as much as the current administration is testing the very permanence of our Constitution and our republic.

Death and tax hikes | Nevada Policy Research Institute

I was also thinking about in the context of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we discuss the obligation to give tithes, our form of taxes. And we read:

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the Lord your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments:I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me. (Deuteronomy 26: 12-14)

It is curious. Why is it not enough to pay your taxes? You also need to make a public declaration.

In the Torah giving tithes is not just a civil obligation. Paying your taxes is a public and even a religious experience. While giving taxes might be inevitable, it is also an honor. We should proud of our ability to participate in a just society, support the needy, and the institutions of state.

When we think about taxes we should think of the words if President Kennedy. He said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” It is all too clear that for our current President it is all about what the country can do for him. And it is of note that he has still yet to share his tax returns. It is clear that he has no honor or respect for anything other than himself, let alone religion. For Trump we might be able to add to Franklin’s adage on death and taxes. In the end it is certain that history will not be kind to him.

Preppers and Ki Tavo

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo we read,

And it shall be, when you come in unto the land which the Lord your God has given you for an inheritance, and possess it, and dwell therein;  that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your God has given you…(Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

On the eve of finishing their 40-year journey in the desert and actually starting their real lives, being a people in a land, Moshe instructs the people to give of their first fruits. They will just have received the land from God, and they will have to turn around and give away the fruit of their labor. What is the meaning of this gift?

On one level it is through the process of gift giving which we can come to recognize the myriad of gifts that we have received to get us to that point. On another level we have to try to imagine what the Israelites were experiencing when they learned this commandment in the desert.

Contemplating this I got to thinking about the “preppers” movement. There survivalists actively prepare for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international. The emphasis is on self-reliance, stockpiling supplies, and gaining survival knowledge and skills. Survivalists often acquire emergency medical and self-defense training, stockpile food and water, prepare to become self-sufficient, and build structures such as survival retreats or underground shelters that may help them survive a catastrophe.

As the aphorism goes, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” These “preppers” are getting ready for the worst.

After surviving in the desert for 40 years on their daily stockpile of Manna we have to imagine the Israelites were craving some fresh produce. These “preppers” would have deeply appreciated access to land to cultivate in this new land. And the first fruit would have seemed like a real gift.

10,000 Hours or 40 Years

At the end of  Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And Moshe called all of Israel and said to them, “You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land; the great trials which your very eyes beheld and those great signs and wonders. Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear. I led you through the desert for forty years [during which time] your garments did not wear out from upon you, nor did your shoes wear out from upon your feet. ( Deuteronomy 29: 1-4)

With all of the signs, wonders, and miracles that this generation saw how come it took them forty years to truly understand what God had done for them?

In reference to this passage the Gemara teaches:

 Yet Moses indicated this to the Israelites only after forty years had passed, as it is said, And I have led you forty years in the
wilderness . . . but the Lord has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear, unto this day.Said Raba: From this you can learn that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master. (Avodah Zarah 5b)

Does it take forty years to really grok the wisdom of your master?

This reminded me of 10,000 Hours by Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis  in which he references Malcolm Gladwell‘s concept from his book Outliers that suggests that true mastery take 10,000 hours of work.

In their song they sing:

This is my world, this is my arena
The TV told me something different I didn’t believe it
I stand here in front of you today all because of an idea
I could be who I wanted if I could see my potential
And I know that one day I’mma be him

 Maybe the real idea being expressed in the Gemara in Avodah Zarah is not that it take forty years for you to understand your master, but it takes forty years for you to really get mastery over yourself. It takes a serious amount of effort, determination, and work for people to become the people that they aspire to be. Similarly our our Torah portion is saying that everyone is enslaved by their past and they need a serious amount of time, be it forty years or 10,000 hours to free yourself to be yourself. This is powerful message for Elul as we all consider doing Teshuva and investing in ourselves becomes our best selves.


Creating Memory – 9/11 for Another Generation

This week we commemorated the anniversary of 9/11. This was a transformational day for me personally. A the time of the event I was learning in yeshivah and living in Manhattan. There are so many memories I have from that time it is hard to imagine communicating them to someone who has not experienced it. I was shocked to realize that all of the Bnai Mitvah from now on were not even alive when 9/11 happened. I pause  to ask, how will we communicate the nature and gravity of this event to the next generation?

I was thinking about this when reading Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the ritual of Bikkurim, bringing the first fruit on Shavuot to the Temple. About this we read:

And you shall come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord your God, that I am come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us.’ And the priest shall take the basket out of thy 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, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.  ( Deuteronom7 26:3-8 )

The generation who entered the land of Israel did not have first hand experience of the slavery and redemption in Egypt. This ritual was a means for this next generation to preserve a memory they never had. It is interesting that this ritual had a script. We learn later that in order to make the script more accessible the priest would say it and the person coming would repeat it.

We have a crises in being Jewish today. How will we share our memories with the next generation? I think we can point out a few things from the ritual of Bikkurim. Like the priest repeating the words,  we need to find ways to make it more accessible to more people. We need to build this difficult memory into something festive and not let the next generation get stuck in the gloom We also need to find the balance between the script that they need to say and the innovation. The next generation needs to find a way to breathe their own imagination into the ritual in order create their own memories around the ritual.

The script from this Bikkurim ritual is the foundation for the Hagadah. The Hagadah is the model of balance between tradition and innovation in order to keep memories vital throughout history.  In every generation we are to see ourselves as having been redeemed from slavery in our own Egypt. I would venture to say it is the most rewritten book in history. In order to get my children to connect to Jewish History  or even 9/11 I need to give them the space to explore what these events mean to them in their lives without the full burden of my understanding of history and what it means to me in my life. Rituals help preserve a dynamic tension between tradition and innovation. Without this tension we will break the chain linking our past to our future and our future to our past.

Taking Torah This Day

In the fourth aliyah of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read how Moses and the elders charged the people to set up large stones on Mount Ebal, coat them with plaster, and to inscribe on them all the words of the Torah as soon as they cross the Jordan River. There they are to build an altar to God made of stones on which no iron tool had struck, and they were to offer on it offerings to God and rejoice. At the end of the aliyah we read:

And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day you have become people to the Lord your God. You shall therefore listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do God’s commandments and God’s statutes, which I command you this day.’ ( Deuteronomy 27: 8-10)

On this Rabbi Yehudah asked what is meant by  “this day” ( Berachot 63b).  Was it on that day that the Torah was given to Israel; was that day not at the end of the 40 years of the wandering in the Wilderness? Rabbi Yehudah explained that the words “this day” served to teach that every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when God gave it at Sinai. But why at this moment are we reminded of the revelation at Sinai?

When my brother was in medical school he shared with me how they were teaching him to become a doctor. He said, ” To learn a procedure we would see one, do one, and teach one.” Different people will learn at different stages. For some people if they see something they will learn it right away. For  others they need to practice it to master it. And everyone will have mastered the procedure if they are able to teach someone else how to do the procedure. It has stayed with me throughout the years that this is probably true in the case of all learning.

It was one thing for the nation to see revelation at Sinai. Making these stone pillars was enacting a commandment of the Torah. On another level making these pillars was a national expression of our teaching the Torah to the world. While we might have been given the Torah at Sinai, it was only when we entered into the land and built these pillars that we took the Torah. Rabbi Yehudah was right. Every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when the nation of Israel took the Torah of Israel  in the land.

Preparing a Clean Slate

At the start of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read, “And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and do possess it, and dwell therein” ( Deuteronomy 26:1)With these opening words we are reminded where we were in the bigger story. A generation of slaves had escaped Egypt and went on to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Amidst their time in the desert they and their children are warned what they will need to do when they finally get into the Promised Land. While they were free in the desert, their ultimate autonomy will only be achieved when they are a free people in their own land (If you feel that you need to stop and sing Hatikvah I would not be upset). At this point in the story they are still in preparation. There we read:

1 And Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying: ‘Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. 2 And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan into the land which the Lord your God gives you, that you shall set up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. 3 And you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah, when you are passed over; that you may go in into the land which the Lord your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you.(Deuteronomy 27:1-3)

Slaves do not own their own property, children, time,  or even their own narrative. It takes a certain power to be able to write your own history. In a profound way autonomy is bound up in the very idea of authorship. It seems fitting that these freed slaves write their narrative on these rocks when they enter the Promised Land. Not only is it empowering, it allows the People of the Book to frame the entire land of Israel in the context of their story.

Having their story be shared in public and in a permanent way is powerful, but  we could easily overlook the media for the message. The very process of preparing these large rocks is a critical part of the story. They were instructed to take rocks and establish them as monuments. They had to take these rocks that would have been otherwise overlooked and prop them up. After doing this they needed to prepare them to be written on and only  then could they write the Torah on them. This process seems to run paralleled to the very process of downtrodden slaves becoming free people. First they needed to be lifted up. Then they needed to be cleaned off and prepared to tell their own narrative. It is only after this process that they , the people  and the rocks, are prepared to share the story.

In our Torah portion we read about the people waiting for the time when they will prepare these rocks to tell their story.  In a deep way this also runs parallel to where we are now in the calendar. Elul represents a similar time when we need to pick ourselves up, start cleaning ourselves up in preparation for Tishrei. Yom Kippur, is the Day of Atonement during which we do Kaparah. Kaparah means to atone, but it also means to cover over. Similar to the large rocks that get a covering of plaster so we can write our collective story, Yom Kippur is a day on which we are freed from the slavery of our sins. It is on that day that our sins are covered over so we can write a new narrative for the coming year.

How are we preparing ourselves to have a clean slate? What story do we want to write this coming year?

We all have some work to do before we may be inscribed and sealed for a good year. Gmar Chatima Tova

Look Who Is Talking

In Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, it records the laws we are to keep upon our entrance into the Promised Land. There we read;

It shall be on the day that you cross the Jordan to the Land that HaShem, your God, gives you, you shall set up great stones and you shall coat them with plaster. You shall inscribe on them all the words of the Torah, when you cross over, so that you may enter the Land that HaShem, your God, gives you. …” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3)

There are many questions we can ask about these stones. Are these stones built as a cause or an effect of their entering into the land?  And an even simpler question, which direction did these stones face? Were they facing the residence in the Land or their neighbors?

Reflecting on these questions I think about my daily commute into New York City. In my transit through Metro North and Grand Central Station I come into contact with hundreds if not thousands of people daily. As I am prone to do, I take note of what people decided to wear. What aspects of their identity are they choosing to disclose? Is what they are wearing a cause or effect of the places they are traveling, who they are, or who they want to appear to be? Many are wearing a symbol some variety or other. What do these symbols represent? Do they wear these things  for themselves to experience or for others to see?

There is no doubt that this consciousnesses is a product of my choice to wear a kipah. Regardless if we realize it or not we all are communicating with the people around us with the symbols of our lives. In that sense these messages are as much for our neighbors as for ourselves. It is what we tell people about ourselves which informs our aspirations for the people we hope to become. In turn these symbols help inform our habits.

These stones from this week’s Torah portion were as much billboards of the Torah on the banks of the Jordan as the t-shirt a freshman in college wears for his/her first day of college. Even if we are not about to erect a large stone monolith or a 9/11 memorial, we all could take a moment and think about the messages we send and make sure they line up with the people you want to become.

We could also explore how we communicate with the land itself. I found this piece, “The art of wearable communication” by Kate Hartman, to be very compelling.

While delightfully quirky, there is no doubt it takes this conversation about communication to the next level. Look who is talking now.

Challenge of Chosen-ness

What does it mean to be Jewish? We are the Chosen People. It is hard to say that without grimacing a bit. How can people who have been victims of the hatred of supremacy maintain it for themselves?

In this weeks Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read,

18And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments, 19and that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19)

We see that being chosen as God’s treasure is predicated by the Israelites choosing to follow God’s Torah. It seems easier to explain being chosen if it is an outcome of one’s behavior as opposed to an accident of birth.  However, in what way did God speak to the Israelites so that they would be a treasured people? Just before they receive the Torah, we read,

5Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, 6but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel (Exodus 19:5-6)

I would assume that supremacy comes by claiming to be the best, but it often comes with claiming that others are worse. ”The entire world” is God’s. It would follow that we might understand that we are great, but the whole world is pretty darn great. It is as if God were saying, “Always remember that you are unique, just like everyone else.” Far be it from me to say that God does not love every one of God’s creations, but I still do not want to take away from the feeling that I am loved. Doesn’t God have enough love for everyone to feel special? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the challenge of chosen-ness.

On Planning and Purpose

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo we read,

And it shall be, when you come in unto the land which the Lord your Gcd has given you for an inheritance, and possess it, and dwell therein;  that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your Gcd has given you…(Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

On the eve of finishing their 40-year journey in the desert and actually starting their real lives, being a people in a land, Moses instructs the people to give of their first fruits. They have not even received the land from Gcd, and they are already informed that they will have give away the fruit of their labor on that land. What is the meaning of this gift?

It is through the process of gift giving which we can come to recognize the myriad of gifts that we have received to get us to that point. We are not simply here due to our own design.

As the aphorism goes, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” While my eldest child is about to start Kindergarten, my newest child is about to spend her first Shabbat on this planet with her family. It is never too early to think about what our life will look like during the next stage. What will be our contribution to the world? How will we live our lives on purpose? Even sharing our aspirations for the gifts you hope to share with the world is a wonderful step towards responding to the people who helped you get to where you are today.

To this, I want to thank my wife who has brought three extraordinary children into this world. While her labor is over, our labor together is just beginning. Adina is an amazing mother and inspires me everyday to be a better father. I am confident that we will prepare our children to be a gift to the world.

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