September 24, 2005
A Mini Prelude to Ki Tavo
We’re breaking with tradition today in several ways. Our Torah is not used every week, so we cannot pick up from where we left off last time. Each time, it needs to be rolled to the correct spot. In this case, since we met on the 3rd weekend of August for Garnett’s Bar Mitzvah, we need to roll ahead five parashot. While we are doing that, I thought I would give a little micro talk on the portion we are about to hear. Also, I am passing out one page for you to share that has a more modern translation of the reading than you will find on pages 859-860 of the chumush, the Hertz bible. This page also has transliterated Hebrew for those of you who don’t read Hebrew, to be able to follow along.
About five weeks ago, I was having dinner with Lois-ellin Datta, an active member of our congregation, and I mentioned that I was going to be chanting Ki Tavo on September 24th. She asked me a most logical question. “What’s it about?”
I had read the English already, so shouldn’t I have been able to answer that question? I realized that I had been so busy focusing on the Hebrew and the tropes—the tropes are the cantillation marks that indicate how words should be sung—that I hadn’t gotten to the meaning quite yet. I said, “Well…it references ‘the land of milk and honey.’” A few weeks later, after reading it again in English, it seemed to me that there were a lot of random instructions and references to our time in Egypt. So, I still wasn’t there. I wasn’t viewing the whole picture.
Finally, after I felt confident with every line and the Hebrew and the chanting were no longer blocking me, I read it again. A miracle occurred. It read logically to me for the first time. Yes, the information was there all along, but I was not quite ready to see it. I’m hoping that sharing a short explanation of this portion will give you a head start on finding meaning and relevance in what you hear today.
What I now see in the first reading, which I will chant for you in a few minutes, is a step-by-step set of guidelines for showing appreciation. We are given a formula for offering the first fruit of the ground produced in the land that g-d is giving us. Commentary in the Hertz Bible on page 859 points out that it is not every fruit, but only the seven kinds mentioned in Deuteronomy VIII 8, which are wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives and date-honey. I venture to say that if you put the word fruit on your 2005 grocery-shopping list, you would have different items in mind. This list, however, is typical of what was found in the land at that time.
When we make this offering we are to include a declaration about our humble beginnings as Aramaeans who were slaves in Egypt. We must recount how we cried out and were rescued and brought to the land flowing with milk and honey.
As I said, now, this reading makes perfect sense to me. I believe it offers a precise framework for showing gratitude. It also ends with an interesting statement that says we should rejoice and be grateful; and it specifically states that this message is not just to the general populace of Israel but it is extended to the Levites and also to the proselytes, the ones among us who are pointed in the same direction as we are. The commentary here talks about proselytes being the spiritual descendents of Abraham. “Spiritual descendents,” I quite like that term. My partner Alice is working on conversion studies right now. She has felt for many years that she is a spiritual descendent of Abraham.
In this portion we are told to show our gratitude. As part of our introspection all month in the month of Elul before the High Holy Days, we are told to reflect and count our blessings. It is here that I want to, once again, express my gratitude for being able to chant Torah in paradise. We often point out that if you want to face Israel from Hawaii, you should look straight down, as we are more or less on the other side of the globe. It is my contention that here on the opposite end of the planet from Israel we live on ‘aina that is rich with coconut milk and sugar cane. Just look around you here and on the Big Island you can’t help but to count your blessings.
In this season of taking stock of our lives and remembering what we have to be grateful for, I wanted to speak about the meaning of the first reading of Ki Tavo as a kind of micro midrash. I wanted to look at the little picture as a prelude to the reading. Perhaps we can all reflect on what we have to be grateful for as we listen to the words in Hebrew. After the Torah service, Judi will be enlightening us with more of a macro view.