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Toward Shabbat: Ki Tavo

Transitional moments are forever sanctified in Judaism, and this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy: 26:1-29:8), is especially emblematic of that tradition. The words “ki tavo” literally translate as “when you enter,” and the parashah describes a ritual that commemorates the arrival of the children of Israel to the Promised Land after their 40-year trek through the desert. As the story tells us, farmers would bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple while reciting these words:

“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 labor upon us. We cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Adonai, have given me.”

Versions of this story-about-a-story—or metanarrative—appear throughout Jewish liturgy, and the tale serves as the foundational text of the Passover Haggadah. Every morning service, weekdays and on Shabbat, includes the “Song of the Sea,” a richly dramatic poem that recounts the escape of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We are also asked to remember our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt when we say kiddush on Friday nights and on the eve of major Jewish holidays.

Borne out of this narrative is an ethical directive: to protect and care for the stranger, the parentless, and the widow, because the Israelites were once ostracized themselves. Indeed, so important is this biblical injunction to lend our hearts to those we don’t know—the outsider, the foreigner, the homeless—that it appears 36 times in the Torah, reminding and imploring us to do what is right.

The Mishnah describes the first-fruits ceremony in vivid detail, and it explains how, in ancient times, not everyone could recite the long “arami oved avi” passage (“My father was a fugitive Aramean…”). And so a custom evolved, in which the priest reads the text aloud for everyone—even those who know the story—and asks the congregation to repeat the words back, line by line.

Ritual is a backbone of Judaism, of course; yet, to my mind, this call-and-response custom introduced a kind of disconnect to the true meaning of the narrative. Over time, the exuberance of that powerful moment in our history—the first arrival of the Israelites, the beneficent welcome of the first-fruits ceremony—began to lose its potency. Recollection alone isn’t enough to motivate us to fully engage in the substance of the ceremony. Something more is needed.

Reading the history of the Jewish people entering the land of Israel in parashat Ki Tavo demands that we ask ourselves: What lands are people leaving and entering today?

What can we learn from the stories of the Afghan people who are now desperately fleeing their ravaged country for more peaceful lands?

Which relief agencies are working to resettle refugees from war-torn countries around the world, and what can we do to make a difference?

And for that matter, how can we be of help to those countless women, men, and children stricken with Covid, thousands of whom arrive at hospitals every day to be greeted not by farmers bearing fruit, but by doctors and nurses carrying ventilators?

We cannot merely be passive readers of the past. We must be active participants in our present.

In his seminal book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, Rabbi A.J. Heschel writes, “Genuine history is enshrined in our rituals. Yet, ritual, loyalty, theology, remain deficient unless there is an ongoing responsiveness to the outbursts and to the demands of immediate history, of our own situations. The integrity of our lives is determined by seeing ourselves as part of the historic context in which we live.”

My father, of blessed memory, instructed me how to recite Friday night kiddush when I was a child. In recalling those cherished lessons, I will never forget the way he would pause just before chanting the phrase, “zekher litzi’at mitzrayim (remember going out from Egypt)”, while gently raising his voice on the word “zekher.” I never asked him why he made this special effort to highlight that particular word for me, but I suspect he was simply teaching me that the act of remembrance not only honors our long ago past, but also inspires us to embrace the present, so that we may all join together to redeem the future.