To See and Be Seen – Parshat Ki Tavo 5779

see-and-be-seen.jpg

When my children were little, we read a lot of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle. The bear goes around and shares what it sees in the world. A red bird, a blue horse, the bear lists all the animals it sees on his daily adventure. Between this book and games of “I Spy” we spent a lot of time practicing using our eyes to take in the world around us.

Each morning our daily prayers give us a list of bodily functions and sensory moments to give thanks for. The morning blessings can read like a checklist of your day: wake up, straighten and stretch our bodies out, put on clothes, eat breakfast, look at the world around us. Each of these is a unique blessing. I’m often struck by the words of the blessing about seeing, “Pokeach Ivrim.” Blessed is God, who opens the eyes of the blind. This is a curious prayer for a couple of reasons. Are we supposed to read it literally, believing that God actually causes blindness and then miraculous recovery? And if you haven’t experienced this miracle, why would you even say this blessing in the present tense anyway? I’ve often asked kids what it means to see, and their answers are always enlightening.

Parshat Ki Tavo, which we read this week, reminds us again of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws of the Torah. Specifically, we learn of the requirement to make an offering of “first fruits” for the priests in the Beit HaMikdash, and the different ways in which we are supposed to thank God and give praise (before prayer was a daily activity). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take time to rebuke one another when we’ve taken a misstep and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.

Chapter 28, verse 26 takes into account the notion of blindness in a whole new way. “As a blind man gropes in the dark,” the verse reads. The question from the Talmud seems obvious: Isn’t a blind man equally disadvantaged both in daylight and in darkness? No, it answers, in daylight he can hope that others will see him and help him. In the dark, however, there will be no one to give help. In this way, the Torah suggests that the sense of sight is about more than observation and utility. To see the world and to see people also means to see their needs and their state of mind.

The Torah, in Parshat Ki Tavo, pushes us to look beyond the surface and into the nuances and deepness of the situations around us. We are asked first to look for poverty, hatred, injustice, and then not just see it, but stand up and make change.

When I teach the brachah of opening your eyes, I do an exercise asking everyone to close their eyes tightly for a while, then open them wide. The room usually appears brighter and looks a bit different. As I ask people to open their eyes I ask, what do you see?

So, close your eyes tightly, keep them closed, and then open them wide. What do you see? How will you help?

How I Learned to Pray Again – Parshat Ki Tavo 5778

pray-again.JPG

In the year after my father died, I lost my ability to speak to God. I couldn’t open the siddur, the words which I had read my entire life fell meaningless on my lips. My heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t share a prayer of a loving God when I felt so unloved, and I couldn’t praise the creator of the world when I felt like my world had been so deeply crushed. My prayers were more filled with silence or rage than calm and compassion.

There are clearly times when the words on the page of the siddur, the formatted, clear-cut, and poetic verse, simply does not fit the moment, the experience, or the mood of prayer that day. I often find myself questioning, “What words truly speak to my heart today?” I know this experience is far from unique to me. As an educator I often hear profound prayers and thoughts about God from the tiniest human beings. A laugh at the silent Amidah in shul is a beautiful way for a baby to lighten my soul, and a request for God’s “presents” instead of “presence” in prayer is in a way a beautiful misunderstanding of a really important concept. But, what would God think about all these outside-the-box prayers?

Luckily, we have our portion this week, Parshat Ki Tavo to shed some light. This is the section of the Torah that reminds us again of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws of the Torah. Specifically, we learn of the requirement to make an offering of “first fruits” for the priests in the Beit HaMikdash, and the different ways in which we are supposed to thank God and give praise (before prayer was a daily activity). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take time to rebuke one another when we’ve taken a misstep and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.

Within the text is the commandment to build the altar using “unhewn stones.” These stones are not perfect. They are not cleanly and evenly quarried; they are not polished or shiny. The altar on which we are to offer up our sacrifice, and with it our prayers, to God is not perfect or pristine. It is made up of whole, natural, imperfect stones. Martin Buber, the great philosopher, is quoted as saying, “Eloquent polished prayer is like hewn, polished stone. Here the ‘unhewn’ (lit. whole) stones represent the inarticulate yearning of a sincere heart – which God prefers.”

Perfection is not prayer. Prayer is made up of the words of our heart in raw, unfiltered form. While the words in the siddur are beautiful and polished and a great jumping off point for prayer, the words in our hearts are those that are offered up as a sacrifice to God. As we approach our sacred time of repentance and teshuvah (returning), Parshat Ki Tavo reminds us that perfection is unnecessary in our relationship with God. Anger, rage, understanding, sadness, and joy are all real human emotions, and when those emotions are shared in prayer, that is when we are truly offering up ourselves in prayer to God.

Faking a Mitzvah – Parshat Ki Tavo 5777

with-feeling

The best bar and bat mitzvah speeches are the ones where the student clearly owns the information, and the speech is delivered with feeling and with meaning. One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate is helping bar and bat mitzvah students with these speeches. I love the process of facilitating their discovery of the text, picking it apart to find something personally meaningful to them in even the strangest of Torah laws. When we start working on a speech, the student might not really connect to the meaning of the text on its surface. Eventually we start to talk about underlying themes and ideas, and slowly the words start to come together.

What I try to convey is that there’s a difference between what the students think I want to hear from them and their own, personal insight into the material. There’s no doubt that the more passionate we are about a cause or idea, the more likely we are to put in hard work, really living and embodying those beliefs.

The same is true with Torah. This week we read from Parshat Ki Tavo, which includes the final narrative of the Israelites preparing for their entry into the Land of Israel. We find out about the gifts the Israelites are to bring to the Beit HaMikdash and the blessings and curses bestowed on the land and on those who observe the Torah and God’s commandments. The parshah begins and ends with the requirement to recognize and give gratitude for the good that comes to us.

In chapter 26, verse 13 we are in the middle of learning about the tithing required of the Israelites. As they stood before God they were required to make a declaration of how and why they were tithing. Part of that avowal is stating, “I have not neglected any of your commandments.” The S’fat Emet interprets this to mean that the individual has not performed any of these mitzvot mindlessly, perfunctorily, or without feeling. The actions taken to perform mitzvot shouldn’t be done automatically or by rote. Each one should have intention and purpose behind it.

When we are fully invested and dedicated, that is when we’re truly giving and participating in community. In Judaism, as in our lives, we should “do it with feeling.” A bar mitzvah isn’t just about the party or turning a certain age, it is about identifying and investing in the future of your relationship with God. It’s not just about keeping tradition, but about believing you are a part of that tradition.

In a Flash – Parshat Ki Tavo 5776

in-a-flash.jpg

As the parent of a young child, I find that my world moves at a breakneck pace. To get out the door on time in the morning means that we have a system in place that works like a well-oiled machine. We’re basically a relay team. Shiri gets up, I feed her while Duncan showers and dresses, then he dresses Shiri while I walk the dog. I then spend a few more minutes with Shiri while Duncan finishes getting ready, and somehow we all end up out the door and on our way to work and school. From the minute Shiri wakes up it’s like a mad dash of events, and there is no stopping it . . . usually. Once in a while, I’ll see an amazing sunrise on my walk, or catch a glimpse of the thirty or so ducks that live in the pond behind our neighborhood, and I have to stop for a moment to take it in. When that happens, I know I risk throwing the whole schedule off, but I’m convinced it’s important enough to stop, look, and enjoy.

So much of life is spent running from activity to activity, from experience to experience, without having the time to stop and take in the world around us. The frenetic life that we’re leading can sometimes be necessary to get us through our daily moments, but it also seems that it might cause us to miss out on a daily blessing.

This week we read parshat Ki Tavo, the section of the Torah that continues to remind the reader of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws of the Torah. Specifically we learn of the requirement to make an offering of first fruits for the priests in the Beit HaMikdash, and the different ways in which we are supposed to thank God and give praise (before prayer was daily). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take the opportunity to rebuke one another when we’ve taken a misstep and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.

In particular, chapter 28, verse 2 reminds us of the casualty that often comes with our hectic lives. “All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God.” In other words, there are blessings in our everyday life that God intends for us to see, but our busy, nonstop lives mean that the blessings cannot catch up to us. The commentator HaEmek Davar teaches that perhaps instead of chasing after fulfillment, we should slow down and let the good things in life catch up to us.

Parshat Ki Tavo reminds us that in our comings and goings it is equally important to stop, take in the world, and allow everything to settle and slow for even just a moment every day. That, friends, is the special window that finally lets the blessing in.