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.

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In a Flash – Parshat Ki Tavo 5776

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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.

The Not-So-Fast Lane – Parshat Ki Tavo 5775

Not-So-Fast Lane

I am a suburbanite through and through. While other people live and die by the big city and the need to be part of it, as Steve Perry knows, I’m just a small town girl. I like being big-city-adjacent. I feel much more at home in my personal vehicle than taking public transportation. Crowded cities like New York throw me completely out of my comfort zone, and to this day I still don’t like having to drive somewhere that doesn’t have ample parking.

The environments where we were raised and those where we feel most comfortable say a lot about us. The rush of downtown life and having everything conveniently accessible by subway (or Uber) is right for some people, and others prefer large open spaces with miles and miles between neighbors.  City or country, suburb or village, every type of place in which to live comes with its own blessings.

This week we read parshat Ki Tavo, 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 this list of blessings comes several examples of where we should be blessed.  Chapter 28 reads:

“All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God.  Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country . . . blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.”  

The bottom line is God will reward you for your service to the community, whichever community that is.  What the Torah doesn’t say is what each type of blessing might look like.  In the city perhaps a blessing is to live in a good neighborhood with good schools.  Perhaps we should be blessed to live near resources or luxuries that enrich our lives.  In the country perhaps the blessing is a plentiful crop, or wide open space to meditate and enjoy.  

The Torah is distinctly vague in what this blessing might be to remind us to discover those blessings ourselves.  What feels like a blessing to me (plentiful parking) might be a curse to you because you see paradise paved to create my parking lot.  And your urban jungle might feel like a blessing to you, but to me, crowded trains and one-way streets are the worst. At the Pesach seder when we remove drops of wine from the second cup to recall the plagues, I like to take out one extra drop of wine for one-way streets.     

Anyway, the Torah reminds us that the choice of where we settle brings its own blessings.  And the blessing itself is individual and what we make it.  This is the perfect little note-to-self that a blessing is that little pause for a minute to simply look around and recognize the good we have found in our own space. 

Daily Gratitudes – Parshat Ki Tavo 5773

Did you know ancient Jewish texts thought of sleep as 1/60th of death?  I must confess that while our daily prayer requires us to begin every morning by thanking God for waking up, it can often be difficult to thank God so early in the morning.  At 5:30 when that alarm clock goes off, I usually just want to roll over and go back to sleep.  Nevertheless, somehow I pull myself together and face the day.  Modeh ani l’fanecha (I am thankful before you) are the words we are asked to speak before stepping foot into a new day.  But what does it mean to be grateful for a day that you have yet to discover?

This week we read from parshat Ki Tavo, which is filled with the final narrative of the Israelites getting ready for their entry into the Land of Israel.  We read about the gifts the Israelites are to bring to the Beit HaMikdash as well as the blessings and curses that come to the land and to those who observe 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.

Chapter 26 reads like an instruction manual for those expecting to enter and participate in the Israelite community.  Specifically, verse 3 requires a person giving a gift that blesses God to say “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”  While this serves as what we might consider a verbal receipt of gift giving, it actually goes much deeper.  This statement requires the individual to acknowledge and make clear that they see the blessing in both the fruits that they have grown and the ability to give a gift in the first place.  In this case, the gift cannot be given until the person who gives it is able to acknowledge the blessing and meaning of the act.
Think about your morning.  How often do you greet something with a “good morning” and actually mean “I hope you have a good morning”?  How often are these just empty words we speak out of habit?  Gratitude doesn’t often come naturally to most people.  It’s not because we’re heartless or even ungrateful.  It’s because the routine of the act has superseded the meaning of the act.  In a sense, our text this week, not to mention our daily prayers, teaches us to be grateful for being grateful.  May we use that lesson as a reminder to add a little bit of ourselves back into everything we do. Good morning.