D’var Torah: Parshat Ki Tavo

Rabbi Michael Silbert
September 9, 2017

Rabbi anina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them. ­­­­ Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a

I taught Hebrew School to sixth graders for a number of years and each year when I would meet a new class in the Fall at the beginning of the academic year, the Jewish calendar would put us on course to approach the High Holidays. I developed a routine of telling the students every year that starting in Elul – the month before the High Holidays – we recite Psalm 27 in our daily prayers, highlighting the passage:

אחת שאלתי מאת ה׳ שבתי בבית ה׳ כל ימי חיי
The one thing – the only thing – that I ask of God is to let me live in God’s house all the days of my life Psalm 27:4

I find this an incredibly moving and stirring passage:

The one thing – the only thing – that I ask of God is to let me live in God’s house all the days of my life

Incredibly moving, and yet I’m never sure that I fully understand it, so I would ask my sixth graders to help me understand it.

One of the answers I got was:

“God’s house is the world, the universe, that God gives us to live in, which means that we are responsible for the environment while we are here. So it means that we have to take care of the environment!”

Another somewhat related answer was:

“We are guests in God’s home. When we are guests in anyone’s home, we need to treat their home and everything in it, with respect. We don’t trash the furniture or leave things lying around. We clean up after ourselves and leave the home untouched.”

Sixth graders. Kids say the darndest things.  But from my students I have learned more than from all of them.

Twelve-year-olds, when given the chance, have the capacity to read into the psalms messages of what it means to be a custodian of God’s universe, what it means to yearn for God’s companionship, what it means to want to be enveloped by the כנפי השכינה, by the loving wings of God’s presence. What it means to be in a partnership with God.

It’s right there if we look for it: both the phenomenal depth and spiritual capacity of sixth graders, and also the opportunity for our own partnership with God. But as we all know, there are a lot of distractions, there’s a lot of noise in our busy daily lives, and so we forget. We forget to pay attention to the messages and to the longings of our souls, we forget what we really yearned for when the chips were down, we forget how much we wanted to live in God’s house, we forget how much we wanted to be in a partnership with God, and we become occupied and preoccupied with the demands of the world around us so that we forget all about the deeper meaning of this world around us and our place in it.

But getting distracted and preoccupied is not a new phenomenon for human beings. Yes, the 21st century is like none that ever came before it in terms of its complexity and  technology and the flood – the deluge – of information constantly coming our way. I get it. But in reality, humankind is no different – we behave no differently as a species today than we ever have. We’ve always been prone to distractibility, to losing ourselves in what we’re doing, to becoming extremely involved in the daily grind. Today’s Facebook or production goals or end-of-year report in the information age is simply the equivalent of the concerns of yesteryear in agrarian society with a bug that’s eating away at the crops, with a stubborn sheep or goat that keeps on getting away from the flock, with a fence that a neighbor keeps on moving, with the rain – too much, too little, too soon, too late. You name it.

We get distracted. It’s in our nature, our DNA. We forget to pay attention to the higher or deeper meaning universe. It’s as if we live two parallel lives: one in the earthly, material world, and another in a spiritual universe, and we just cannot seem to learn how to integrate them and merge them: the life of the daily grind and the life of the deeper, inner self; the life of the superficial and then the life of the soul and spirit that yearns for the comfort of knowing that we are living in God’s house, that we are living in an active relationship and partnership with God.

It turns out that we need reminders – we’ve always needed reminders – to return to that place. The kind of reminders that are built-in to the structure of Jewish life and which help us integrate the different aspects of ourselves in order to bring us back to that place, if we are open to it.

Ki Tavo this morning begins with a seemingly pedestrian description of rituals surrounding the yield of the first harvest of fruits in the Promised Land of Israel. And if we scratch away even gently at the surface, we uncover magnificent and inspiring lessons about the importance of acknowledging our own achievements while needing to retain a sense of humility and of the collective good. 

This parasha speaks of the virtue of personal property and prosperity – very real and concrete stuff – yet balances this with a sense of community and responsibility towards society; opportunities we have to heal this world, to tend to God’s house, by making life better for others.  These themes are interwoven with reminders to step outside our personal contexts and realities and to remember that we are part of something greater which brings us back to our relationship with God and the role we play in manifesting God’s divine spark in this world. Each one of us.

When our distant, distracted selves hear that each of us has a personal relationship with God and that each of us plays a role in manifesting God’s diving spark in the world, it might even sound odd. Absurd. Like someone speaking to us in a foreign language. “Who, me?! Play a role in manifesting God’s divine spark in the world? Nah. That’s not my thing.”

It’s not me unless I choose it to be me. We all have a role to play. The opening sentences of Ki Tavo instruct the Jewish people, collectively, to gather the first fruits once they have conquered and settled the land of Israel, and to praise God for these fruits.  This obligation also applies to subsequent generations of Jews, even those who have not themselves conquered and settled the land of Israel. 

The collective consciousness that we as Jews carry with us in subsequent generations highlights important themes of Jewish existence: the role of active memory and the beauty of experiencing miracles anew. 

And because God knows who we are and what we’re all about, God tells us to take those first fruits, to give them to the priest and then to announce out aloud:

I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.” Deut. 26:3

The very act of this deliberate vocal declaration is designed to shake us, to wake us, to rouse us from our distance and distraction and to say to ourselves:

“Wake up! Wake up from your involvement with the fruit and the crops and the delivery and the priest, and look deeper! Wake your soul and notice what is happening! The fruit you hold in your hand is more than just a piece of fruit, it’s God at work. It’s God fulfilling God’s promise of what awaited you in the promised land. This is the reward for your travels, your travails, your trials, your tribulations. Moreover, the fruit you hold in your hand is more than just a piece of fruit and it’s also more than just God’s work: it represents your own capacity to plant something, to tend to it and to give it the attention it demands and deserves to help it grow and flourish. This is the result of your partnership with God. This is living in God’s house.”

Bereishit Rabbah teaches that Rabbi Shimon said:

“Every single blade of grass has its own angel in the sky which touches it and tells it to grow.” Bereshit Rabbah 10:6

Well, sometimes we are the blade of grass and sometimes we are the angel. Sometimes we so desperately need the encouragement, the support, the comfort of knowing that someone believes in us.  And sometimes we feel empowered: we uncover our own gift of grace inside us that emboldens us to be the support and comfort that we and others need. So much so, that immediately after blessing the fruit and handing it to the priest – in the very next verse! – the Torah instructs us to make another declaration for everyone to hear:

“אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י – my father was a wandering Aramean.” Deut. 26:5

— which is to say that: in my own family we have known what it is to be homeless, to wander, to be vulnerable, and now that God has helped me to prosper, I dare not forget that earlier experience of my own family.

Our parsha continues in Deuteronomy 26:6

“the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us.” Deut.26:6

— they did this to my own family.

Verse 7 tells us that my own family

“- cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard my own family’s voice and saw my own family’s affliction, my own family’s toil, and my own family’s oppression.” Deut. 26:7


Verse 8:

And the Lord brought my own family out from Egypt and out from Russia and Poland and Germany and Iraq and Libya and Ethiopia with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And God brought my own family to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and She gave us the potential to learn and to grow and to receive Her blessings for us and to give our own blessings and kindness to others. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O Lord, have given to me and to my own family.” Deut. 26:8-10

My friends, it’s time. We are in the month of Elul, but a week and a half from Rosh HaShanah. It’s time to wake up, to look around us and to find our way back to God’s house. It’s time to take account of our lives, the successes and the blessings, difficult though they may be at times to find and identify; all that we could not have lived without in the parting year. It’s time to scratch beneath the clutter and uncover memories of joy we cherished, smiles we smiled, growth that further shaped and developed us into who we are, no matter what our age.

It’s also time to wake up and remember the hurt we caused, retreated from and failed to own. The anger and feelings of inadequacy we misplaced onto others in moments when we did not rise to all that we could be. It’s time to say “Sorry.”

Saying “Sorry” is as much repairing the world as is building a new home for someone who needs it, for when we brutalize a person with even just our words, sometimes we shake their foundations so that the walls of their very being quiver and collapse.  Rebuilding is not something that we do with wood and nails, bricks and mortar, alone. It’s something we also do when we waken our souls and find our way back to that place inside of us where God is, for as much as we live in God’s house, so too does God live in ours.

Wake up and start finding your way back.

To quote what I see as a *midrash that reminds us to return to that place:

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me…
(I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm

I’m going to join a rock ‘n roll band)

I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden


Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden


(By the time we got to Woodstock)
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.

*With apologies to Joni Mitchell for my edits of her song, Woodstock.