How I Learned to Pray Again – Parshat Ki Tavo 5778

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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

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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

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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

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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.