Sermon Parshat Ki Tavo 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
Whenever we carry the Torah around the sanctuary during a hakafah we sing Al Shloshah Devarim, the passage from Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah: Al Shlosha Devarim Ha’olam omeid; al hatorah v’al ha’avodah v’al gemilut chasadim; on three things the world stands. On Torah, on work, and on acts of kindness. In this formula, Torah is listed first, making it the most important part of our tradition.
You may be familiar with the great Labor Zionist Achad Ha’Am’s related concept that Judaism is made up of three great elements: God, Torah, and Israel. Torah, for Jews, is at the very center of life. And when I teach Introductory Judaism I teach that the greatest ideas of Judaism are God, Torah and Israel. These are the primary concepts of Jewish ideology, the centerpoints of our existence for thousands of years.
So what are we to make of a central Jewish text that completely omits Torah?
This week we read the portion of Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, which begins with an unusual declaration: when we come into the land that the Lord our God will give us as an inheritance we are to take the first fruits of our produce, and bring them to the priest who is in the land at that time, and say this formula: “Arami oveid avi, my father was a wandering Aramean, and he came to Egypt few in number, and became a great nation there; the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and enslaved us; but God brought us out with a great hand and an oustretched arm… and brought us to this place, flowing with milk and honey.” In addition to its central role in an important Biblical ritual, this passage was quoted often in rabbinic literature, most famously in the Pesach Haggadah.
But this formula for what we are supposed to say when we bring our offering to the Tabernacle is surprising. In its mini-history of our ancient people it includes two of the enormous elements in our people’s history, Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and the entry into and settlement of Eretz Yisrael, the home Land of Israel. But it curiously omits all mention of a third equally crucial event: the giving of Torah at Sinai.
It’s a fascinating, even a shocking, omission. If the three most important elements of Jewish identity are God, Torah, and Israel, omitting Torah means having an incomplete form of Judaism. Ironically, here in the Torah itself what is missing is, well, Torah.
The explanation for this omission teaches us much about how religion evolves, and what an organic and remarkable creation Judaism is.
In Biblical times our people constituted an agricultural nation, living on and with the land. The most important religious experiences were farming-related: planting crops, harvesting, dividing the produce, offering it, and eating it. The connection to the land itself, and the labor needed to produce food from it, was absolutely central to our identity. Erets Yisrael was truly the holy land of Israel, and our intimate and permanent relationship to that land was forged over centuries of daily labor and life. When Zionism reconnected Jews to our land in the 19th century in a real, tangible, practical way, it revived the whole experience of loving and serving God by creating food from the very earth, hamotzi lechem min ha’arets. The land of Israel was at the heart of our people then, and it is also at the heart of Ki Tavo, as we hope it is at the heart of every Jew in the world today. Whether we applaud or critique the results of Israel’s election last week—and who knows what the end will really be? Not even me… we are deeply connected to Israel.
Like Erets Yisrael, God, too, was central to Jewish life in the times of the Bible, as it is today. In Ki Tavo we are commanded to bring this offering to God in the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) and to thank God for all that we have. And we are to remember the great gift of freedom that God conferred upon us by miraculously redeeming us from Egyptian slavery. Everything comes from God, a good lesson today as in the time of Deuteronomy.
So we have God and Israel here—but not Torah. Clearly, the third leg of this stool of Jewish identity, Torah, was far less crucial to our Deuteronomic ancestors than the other two. Again, why?
As farmers in our own land the need to study Torah, in whatever form it existed, must have seemed less urgent. We had an immediate relationship with the land, and we needed God for the basics that make agriculture possible: rain, sun, soil. The importance of Torah was diminished when we lived on the land itself.
It is a little like the experience you may have had when you went on a trip, say, a pilgrimage journey to Israel. It was a great trip, you had fun, you learned a lot, you laughed you cried, you took a ton of photos. And when you got home you went through all of your photos, and you selected the best of them. And you posted them on your Facebook page with captions: With my son praying at the Kotel! My wife and I floating in the Dead Sea! The beach in Tel Aviv at sunset! The view from the Caro synagogue in Tzefat! On a wrecked Syrian tank on the Golan Heights! Rafting the Jordan River! Wine tasting in the Galilee! An Ethiopian cultural center in Beit She’an! At the Knesset! And everyone of those places was the highlight of your fabulous pilgrimage experience!
Now, this being the digital age, there were lots of other photos too; a cactus in the Negev, or a small dumpy house located right on the Green Line between Israel proper and the West Bank, or yet another archeological ruin whose name escapes you where you can’t remember why you took the photo, and of course that smelly camel on the Mt. of Olives. Those pictures are still in your DropBox, but you don’t post those on your Facebook page, and you quickly forget them.
And then one day you are listening to the news—whichever denomination of news you prefer—and you hear the amazing, improbable news that Israel and the Palestinians have just signed a peace treaty—and they did so in some small house on the Green Line between the West Bank and Israel proper. And you think—wait a minute! I swear I saw that little house when I was in Israel.
And you dig through your DropBox or hunt up the memory stick with your original Israel photos, or search your hard drive or cloud file, and suddenly, there it is! The photo of a dumpy little house in a sensitive spot that somehow has now become the center of Jewish and Palestinian and Middle Eastern history.
And you immediately post it on your Facebook page, and send everyone you know in the entire world a message that you were in that house! And that it was the highlight of your entire trip to Israel!
Well, you see, that’s kind of what the great treasure trove, the storehouse of Jewish experience and knowledge is like. When we were in our own land, 2000 years ago, that land, Israel, and our relationship to God were central. Torah didn’t matter so much.
But when we were sent into Exile in the Diaspora, and forcibly torn from our own land, we needed Torah. In fact, without the study of Torah, Judaism would have disappeared, and the people of Israel faded into the dust of history. Only Torah preserved us—gave us the moral foundation, and the religious identity, to not only survive from thrive.
When we read in Ki Tavo—in the Torah, of course—that we are to give a tenth of all that we have earned to charity, to the poor and the homeless and the widow and the orphan, we acknowledge that we have been blessed. We are following an ancient agricultural practice, more than 3000 years old, designed for an ancient people in a land of long ago.
But we are also using this remarkable text, Torah, to teach us how to live today. And therein lies the true genius of Judaism.
For wherever we are in the world it is the Torah that binds us together and makes possible our unity as a people. It is the Torah that reminds us to worship God, and of our connection to the holy land of Israel. It is the Torah that teaches us that tzedakah must be part and parcel of our very being. It is our remarkable ability to evolve our knowledge and understanding of Torah that have allowed us to reshape our fantastic religion to fit every era and every place on the whole of the globe.
That is why Jews are always at the center of the movements to welcome the stranger and the immigrant, to work to end homelessness and hunger, to make health care available to all, to promote justice in an unjust world.
Paradoxically, even when the Torah seems to be absent, as it appears to be in Ki Tavo, it is not only implicitly present, but actually central, in our religion and in our lives. May it always be so for each of us.
As we approach these last two Shabbatot of the year 5779, may we each find our way back to engaging with Torah, discover how to embrace the learning and living of life with this remarkable text of our tradition in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls. For if we do this, we will find that we must work to make this a world in which God’s influence is present for us, for all Israel, and for all the world.