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Friday, September 7, 2012

Parshat Ki Tavo: Neither an Oppressor nor a Wanderer Be

This week's parashah/portion is Ki Tavo (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 26:1 -29:8). The opening lines describe the ritual that the people are meant to enact when they enter the Promised Land and bring their first fruits of their harvest as an offering of thanks to God.

When the people bring the basket of first fruits to the priest we read: "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 wandering Aramean, so he went down to Egypt and resided there with few persons and became a large, powerful and numerous nation there. And the Egyptians oppressed 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) .

The phrase used to begin this ancient ritual, Arami oved avi , is subject to numerous translations and interpretations. Rashi, in the 11th century France understood it as “an Aramean sought to destroy my father”, referring here to Jacob's uncle Laban. In the 12th century, Rashi's grandson, Rashbam, understood it as “my father was a wandering Aramean,” which became the standard translation in many languages.  Rashbam believed the verse referred to Abraham, who was born and raised in Aram.

So which is correct?  Perhaps both.  For perhaps the essence of the text is that this mysterious Aramean is both our wandering ancestors and the one who oppressed him. So too we are each at times wandering aimlessly, at times we are oppressed and at times we are the oppressor.  And in many of these instances, we are actually all three simultaneously, for we are oppressing ourselves. Our action, or inaction, can oppress us. They can cause us to get stuck where we are. To not move ahead. To not see where we are meant to go. As both oppressor and oppressed, our actions have consequences for ourselves and for others with whom we are in contact, as well as for our society and our world.

Whatever the translation, the Torah clearly felt this was an essential ritual. It's performance was to be required for all when the people were in the land. It was the way that they would thank God for the first fruits of their harvest. If they didn't perform the ritual using the exact Hebrew formula as written in the Torah, it would be as if they were still food from God's earth. Reciting this historical passage was a way of connecting and identifying with our ancestors and our history in a very powerful manner. Yet, there were those who were less educated and illiterate who could not recite the passage as written. And so,we read in the Mishnah (first post-biblical law codes) that if the person bringing for their offering could not read the Hebrew, they were allowed to have a prompter. However, it eventually became clear that those unable to recite the Hebrew on their own were not bringing their offerings at all, because they were embarrassed to use a prompter. Therefore, the rabbis ruled that all people would have a prompter, thereby not embarrassing those who were less knowledgeable. This story really struck me and actually I found a connection between it and the original text.

For the rabbis were faced with quite a dilemma. The ritual was to be performed exactly as written in the Torah. But those who were less well educated could not participate. And so they developed what seemed like a reasonable compromise. Those unable to recite on their own could use a prompter. But what the rabbis forgot was the effect that having a prompter would have on the sense of kavod/honor of those who needed to use one. And so, those people would rather forgo the ritual of thanking God, rather than embarrass themselves.

When the rabbis realized this, they knew that another decision had to be made. They could end the need for the ritual totally, which would be against the Torah. They could tell those who were less educated that they could not participate, which them would force them to defy Torah law or they could translate the ritual from Hebrew to Aramaic, the language of the day. But that too would defy the law, as they would not be reciting the text as written. But what they did was find a brilliant solution that retained the law as written, but also maintained the dignity and honor of all the community. They required that everyone use a prompter. That way, no one would know who was educated and who was not.

In the terminology used in the passage itself, the rabbis had a choice to let those less well educated become “wanderers”, unable to bring their fruits to the Temple and thereby separated from the community. Unable to recite the ritual, they would be forced to wander in a spiritual no man's land, eating the fruit of God's earth without being able to properly acknowledge God. Following this approach, the rabbis would also be oppressors, they could force people to either do it “the right way” or no way. Period. No questions asked. But instead they found a middle ground. And this middle ground was not rooted in wandering or in oppression, but it was rooted in honor, kindness and compassion – kavod, hesed and rahamim.

The rabbis did the same thing when they created a chamber in the Bet Ha'Mikdash/Holy Temple where people were to go either to give tzedakah/charity or to take from tzedakah for themselves. The door to the chamber was closed, so no one would know who was entering the chamber to give and who to take. No one was left to wander without money or food because they were ashamed to enter the chamber. And no one felt oppressed by being force to be seen taken money, nor did anyone need to oppress others by forcing them to be in that situation.

And all of this was rooted in respect, kindness and compassion. Perhaps the foremost of these was compassion – rahamim. For compassion means “to be with the pain of others” and rahamim, comes from the same root as the word rehem/womb. Rahamim reminds us that we are all intimately connected to one another, we are all a part of one another, just as the fetus growing in the womb is a part of its mother. We are all connected. We are all one. That is the root of compassion.

Without becoming political in any way, I believe that this teaching is something we should all consider in this election year. For as we prepare to determine the direction our country will take for the next four years, and as our brothers and sisters in Israel continually try to determine the direction they take, let us remember that ultimately we must be guided by kavod, hesed and rahamim. Respect, kindness and compassion. We must be guided by the knowledge that we are all one within God, we are all connected to each other and to everyone and everything in the universe.

We are all indeed our brothers' and sisters' keepers. But to what degree? Whatever choices we make, let us remember that we must not create a country that oppresses others through rules and laws, even when they might be well intentioned and meant to help others. Nor can we let our fellow human beings become aimless wanderers, trying to find their way by themselves. There must be a balance. There must be a way. And that way must be guided by respect for each individual – no matter how much we might disagree, kindness towards all of God's creation – human or not, and compassion for all of humanity and for our world. For we are all one. If we use these three principles to guide us, then we will continue to build a nation and a world where no one wanders helpless and alone and no one oppresses or dictates to others. That is the world I believe to be envisioned in our Torah. And it is the world in which I hope we shall live soon an in our own time.

Amen.

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