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Friday, September 4, 2009

Commentary on Parshat Ki Tavo

This week's parashah/portion is Ki Tavo (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1 -
29:8). The opening words, from which the parashah takes it's name
(as always) mean "when you enter," and refers to the ritual that the
people are meant to enact when they enter the Promised Land in the
future and bring their first fruits to the priest.

When the people bring the basket of first fruits to the priest we
read (translation by Richard Elliot Friedman):
"And the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set
it down in front of the altar of YHWH, your God. And you shall
answer and say in front of YHWH, your God:
My father was a perishing Aramean, so he went down to Egypt
and resided there with few persons and became a big, powerful and
numerous nation there. And the Egyptians were bad to us and degraded
us and imposed hard work on us. And we cried out to YHWH ... And
YHWH brought us out from Egypt ... to this place and gave us this
land ... and now, here, I've brought the first of the fruit of the
land that you've given me, YHWH." (26:4 - 10)

Though I was familiar with this passage not only from the Torah, but
also from its traditional inclusion in the Passover Haggadah,
something struck me in the Hebrew and in Friedman's translation. For
right before the person begins reciting the formulaic "my father
was ..." the text states "and you shall answer and say in front of
YHWH, your God .." Often this is translated simply as "and you shall
say ...", but the Hebrew clearly uses the verb a-n-h, which means to
answer. However, it is unclear what question the person bringing
the offering is actually responding to. It is also unclear if the
person is responding to the priest, to whom s/he has given the
basket, or to God, before whom s/he stands

As is often the case, the text leaves the reader with more questions
than answers. Yet, I believe at the heart of this text are the
concepts of duality, tension and contradiction that I discussed in
last week's commentary. Just as last week I imagined that the
speaker was simultaneously the parent of a "stubborn and rebellious
child" and that child him/herself, so there are dualities and
multiple truths in tension within this narrative.

The primary duality or tension that I see is between past, present
and future. Though this seems to be more than a duality, since there
are three ideas in tension with each other, I believe that at its
heart is really is a duality. For the tension here is between the
present and that which is not-the-present. Both past and future are
unrealities. Neither of them truly exists, for the only reality is
what is before us in the present. Yet, we cannot deny the role that
the past and the future play in our lives.

The ritual about which we read in this parashah takes place in the
future - when the people are free and in the Promised Land - but
recalls our collective past - when we were slaves and when we were
freed from slavery. So what does it offer us in the present?
Perhaps the answer to this question can be found a few verses later
in the parashah where we read: "This day YHWH, your God commands you
to do these laws and judgments. And you shall be watchful and do
them with all your heart and soul. You have proclaimed YHWH today to
be God to you, and to go in God's ways and to observe God's laws and
God's commandments and God's judgments and to listen to God's voice.
And YHWH proclaimed you today to be a treasured people to God ..."
(26:16 - 18).

As you can see, the words "this day" or "today" are found three times
in these two verses. In reading these words I became aware that
these two verses describe what it means to live in the present with
the knowledge that God is within each of us and infusing our world
with Divine energy.

These verses tell us that it is "this day" - in this very moment -
which is a microcosm of this day, which in turn is a microcosm of
eternity - that we experience the will of God (however each of us
chooses to define that term). We discover teachings of God through
our interactions with God's creation and God's world by being truly
present, watchful and mindful of what is before us. This means not
just using what we traditionally think of as our mind or our
intellect, but using our hearts and our souls - which contain within
them not only the emotions and the spiritual self, but the intellect
as well. If we do this then we cannot help but proclaim in this
moment that God is ours and that we are God's. We cannot help but
walk down the path of God - the path of righteousness and holiness.
We cannot help but listen to the voice of God in the sound of our own
voices, in the voices of all those around us and in the sounds of the
world in which we live. For all of these are manifestations of God's

By acknowledging God's presence in this moment we proclaim to
ourselves and to the world that each of us is God's treasure. If we
do not do these things it does not mean that we are doomed to spend
our lives NOT as God's treasure. Rather, it simply means that in
this moment we have missed the opportunity to see ourselves in this
light. But in the next moment and in the moment after that the
opportunity will arise for us yet again to see ourselves in this
light and to feel in our heart, our soul and our mind what this means.

In this way the ritual as described in the parashah and the verses
that follow it embody the idea that we must live in the present to
truly experience God, even though we cannot help but bring our past
with us and be mindful of the opportunities that lie in the future -
which will someday be the present.

But this still does not tell us to what or to whom the person
bringing the first fruits was responding when s/he recited these
formulaic verses. What was the question they answered and who was
the questioner?

I believe that the questioner is clearly God, for that is before whom
we all stand. In this scenario the priest is seen merely as the
intermediary. So even if the priest asked the question it must still
be viewed as a question from God. But here we are playing a game of
spiritual "Jeopardy," for we have discovered the answer and now we
must discover the question.

What is the question that God asked that person bringing his/her
first fruits from Promised Land - the fruits of the future-that-has-
now-become-the-present - which is then answered by recalling the
oppression of our past, the miracles that made us free and then
concludes with a reminder of what we must do in the present in order
to live in a godly way?

The clock is ticking. The theme song plays in our mind. We try and
try to find the answer. The key changes. Our minds are stuck. Will
we win or lose? Will we discover the answer? Then suddenly, just
before the buzzer sounds, the answer comes to us as if it were always
there. And the question is simply ... "Why?"

Why are you here at this very moment bringing me the fruits of
Promise? Why are you standing here before Me at this moment? Why
did I hear your cry, rescue you from slavery and bring you to Me in
My land? Why ....?

Why? This is the question that God asked our ancestors with the
basket of first fruits in their hands. This is the question that God
asks us each and every moment - and which we must ask one another and
ourselves. Why are we here? Why is this moment unfolding the way it
is? Why?

To find the answer we need only to look into the eyes of God, in
whose presence we always stand. We do this by looking into the eyes
of the person beside us, whether loved one, adversary or stranger.
We do this by looking into the mirror. We do this by looking at the
trees, the grass, the ocean, the mountains and the world around us.
We look at all of these things and we find the answer to the simple,
yet eternal, question.

Why? Because God wants us to be here and to be present in this
moment to celebrate, to make the world a better place, to sense God's
presence and to share it with others.

I quote once again one of my favorite biblical verses from the Psalm
118, "This is the day [my interpretation: the moment] that God has
made, let us rejoice and celebrate it!"
If we keep this verse and God's presence before us in each moment
then we can find within us the answer to the eternal question that
God has been asking of us and will continue to ask us and those who
come after ... "why?".

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