Weekly Torah: Ki Tavo

A door in the clouds, leading to other dimensions, illustrating the possibility of new political narrativeImprisoned in Political Narrative (5777/2017)

Judaism has a “master story” that shapes our political narrative. It is, of course, the Exodus.

One famous version goes like this:

A few of us found security in a foreign land. We became many. We were oppressed. We cried out to God. God saved us, bringing us to a land flowing with milk and honey (paraphrase, Deut. 26:5-10).

This is the quick summary. To be recited in gratitude, Torah says, when you reach the sweet, nutritious land. Or every year at Passover, our sages say, no matter where you find yourself.

It’s story about our past, to be sure. But it’s also a story about our present and future. Egypt. Babylonia. Spain. Germany. Iraq. And now, some fear, North America, too.

Does the Exodus really happen over and over again? We Jews cannot answer objectively. Wherever we are, we collect the facts and organize them into this storyline.

It’s a great storyline! Suffering, faith, and life renewed. A recipe for hope.

I love it, use it, see it. Everywhere. Political events follow the pattern. So do psychological events. And spiritual ones.

But I worry. A single narrative that stretches to fit all facts can be dangerous.

We see the danger in public discourse. Rigid polarized political narrative, unshaken by facts. Challenging data discredited, rather than investigated. It’s getting worse – or so it seems.

Really, it’s nothing new – said journalist Walter Lippmann in 1922. On the eve of World War I (he writes), expats from England, France, and Germany enjoyed life together on a remote island. Remote – as in “off the grid.” Mail arrived by ship every 60 days. August 1914 came…and went. No one told these British, French, and German citizens they were now declared enemies. For them, nothing had changed.

Sounds funny, doesn’t it? To be so unaware of reality? To think, feel, and act guided by false belief?

Yes! But it’s not unusual. We do this every day. We are always minutes, hours, or days behind important news. Always thinking, feeling, and acting. And always based on our picture of reality. Which is rarely accurate.

Why? Why would our picture of reality be inaccurate? Lies. Deliberate censorship. Little contact with people who think differently. Scant time to attend to news. Complex events told in short, simple messages. Prejudices that highlight particular facts. Reluctance to face facts that require us to change. Stored-up images more powerful than facts. Emotional connection with a familiar story. Identification with a group that treasures its political narrative.

Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? Where prisoners see only shadows of reflections of representations projected on the cave wall? The prisoners, says Plato, are us.

My community cherishes the Exodus story. Does this reduce my contact with people who think differently? Yes. Offer a simple formulaic message that distorts complex events? Yes. Prejudice me to highlight particular facts? Yes. Offer an image more powerful than any fact? Yes.

So I’m working on a new Exodus: freeing myself from Plato’s cave. Sure, my opinions bring security. They place me in good company. But they oppress me. Sometimes I can’t listen or learn. Open my heart, God. Lift veils from my eyes. Help me feel into worlds others know. Bring me to a land flowing with insight. Bring us all! Amen.


Life After Trauma (5776/2016)

When these wanderings are complete, says Moses to the Israelites, you will settle in the land. As you start your new life, you will plant seedlings. In a few years, these will bear fruit. You will gather those fruits – but you will not eat them all. You will take a basketful down to the place where you connect with God, hand it to the attending priest, and say:

…The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to YHWH, the God of our ancestors, and YHWH heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. YHWH freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with signs and wonders… (Devarim/Deut. 26:7-9)

We who have read the Exodus story and adopted it as our own know this is not the whole story. We didn’t cry one day, and get freed the next. Instead, Moses confronted Pharaoh, Pharaoh placed increased burdens on the Israelites, the Israelites lost confidence in Moses, Pharaoh changed his mind then changed it back, Egypt suffered under the plagues – over and over again. We recognize this winding, painful story only too well – most significant life and world events unfold in uneven stages.

What can this sanitized retelling teach us? Perhaps there’s a lesson about hope. One day, says Moses, all this will be behind you. Cycles of suffering will no longer repeat. Horrific events will no longer play through your dreams, poisoning your sleep. Small daily details will no longer trigger huge bitter memories. One day, you will only glance behind you as you survey the future. You will wake up in the morning and see only the joy that lies before you.

May it be so, for each of us individuals, and for all of us as communities.


How Many Words Does It Take? (5772/2012)

In Parshat Ki Tavo, the Torah is written in stone – or at least, Moshe instructs the Israelites to write it on stone. “Every word” is to be written in “clear handwriting” on two limestone-covered monuments (Devarim/Deuteronomy 27:4-8).

Classical Torah commentator Ramban (Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, 1194-1270) wonders how this might be possible. What is meant by “every word,” and by “clear handwriting”? In one view he cites, the monuments contain every word of the Ten Commandments, written in seventy languages so all can understand. In another view, the monument contains all 79,847 words of Torah, written in modern scribal script, decorative crowns and all. Ramban concludes, “Either these were very big stones, or a miracle happened.”

When I am in a literal mode, I try to imagine the stones, as Ramban did. Perhaps they looked like a postwar monument, with the names of many veterans or victims carved in very tiny letters. Unfortunately, I have visited many such monuments. At each one, I only need to read a few names in order to be moved by the message.

For me, this unlocks the metaphor of the two stones. Torah is like this kind of monument. We don’t need to read every word in order to be moved. A single story or teaching, taken to heart, can be very powerful.  As the Ba’al Shem Tov writes: “God is present in the words of Torah. Each word is a complete self. Enter into the words, speaking them with all your strength. Your soul will then meet God in the word.”

May you find in the Rosh Hashanah service words that open you to your complete Self and a deep experience of the Divine Presence.


CosmicFruit_3_smallFruits of the Journey (5771/2011)

In the first ten lines of Parshat Ki Tavo, Moshe tells the Israelites how to offer the first fruits of the land as a thanksgiving offering, in celebration of the journey from slavery to freedom to the Promised Land. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1-10)

Moshe’s words describe the Israelites’ geographic travels, and they also describe a recurring inner journey. If we read the words with the inner journey in mind, they offer an important Rosh Hashanah reminder. New Year’s resolutions flow from reflections on all aspects of our lives – from mistakes and successes, moments of spiritual confusion as well as inspiration.

Explore this inner-oriented translation of Moshe’s words, and allow yourself to ask: what are the fruits of my inner journey that I wish to share in the coming year?

When you come to a place of spiritual fulfillment,

an inner place that finally feels like “home,”

notice what ripens inside you.

Gather it together,

and go to the inner place where you feel close to God,

where you feel that Someone will witness your words.

And say:

When an older version of me

first wandered into this narrow place

I grew in response to challenge.

But over time, the inner work became too hard.

I felt beaten down and punished.

So I cried out to you, Holy One, and

You reached out to me,

showed me the signs,

offered me your strength,

brought me to a land where inner treasures flow.

Now I wish to share the fruits of this journey.


“There’s No Place Like Home” (5768/2008)

“When you enter the land that God is giving you, say: my ancestor went down to the narrow place. But God heard our voice and brought us to this place. Now, I bring the first fruits God has given me.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1-10)

Ki Tavo: When You Arrive. Ki Tavo invites each of us to reflect on how we get from our narrow place to our spiritual home, where we recognize and share our gifts. The parashah invites us to look back at the start of the journey and understand our path.

Does our Dorothy truly desire to do teshuvah – to return home? Have we activated our Tin Man’s heart? Our Scarecrow’s brain? Our Cowardly Lion’s courage? Have we passionately sought the kindly wizard who reminds us that we have the resources to find our way?

Inspired by Estelle Frankel


Entering Sacred Narrative (5765/2005)

“My father was a wandering Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.  The Egyptians dealt harshly with us. The LORD freed us by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26: 5-8)

This passage provides one version of the “sacred narrative” of the Jewish people.  It may sound familiar: in late antiquity, rabbinic sages chose it as the core of the Haggadah – the telling of the story of Pesach.  In their own Haggadah, the sages elaborated on these core verses with midrashic (interpretive) stories.  The elaborations spoke to the immediate concerns of their generation.  The sages did not mean for their particular Haggadah to become the permanent liturgy of Passover, although it did.  They merely meant to demonstrate how one makes a sacred narrative speak to their own concerns.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy is filled with sacred images and narratives.  For example, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer depicts God as judge, king, and shepherd.  As judge, God evaluates our merits; as King, God entertains our petitions; and as Shepherd, God counts every single one of us.  This prayer is the poetic composition of one passionate individual.  It does not claim to be the definitive description of what happens in heaven at Rosh Hashanah.  Instead, it offers a variety of images designed to inspire teshuvah and self-reflection!

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