After two weeks of political conventions, with two opposing visions of what a just society should look like, we come upon Ki Tavo, in the midst of Deuteronomy, the final book of the torah, with its own ideas. Just a reminder that Deuteronomy was essential to King Josiah’s reforms, it was the “found” book of the Torah, discovered or rediscovered and vetted during the time of great change, before the destruction of the temple.
As I read the parasha this week, I was struck by two different sections. The first is the opening one, the one that gives it its name. Let’s read it…
Deut. 26:1 When you come the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Adonai your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where Adonai your God will choose to establish His name. 3 You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before Adonai your God that I have entered the land that Adonai swore to our fathers to assign us.”
There follows an unusually prescriptive ritual of what we are to say, when we bring our first fruits to the temple. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
“7 My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.
And so on… Recognize it? We read it early in the Passover haggadah.
It is one of the few places in the whole Torah that tells us exactly what to say. It is a ritual for giving thanks, for being mindful that, while we may have put in a lot of hard work, we might have been careful to tend what we have been given, well, we did not build it ourselves alone. We may have amended the soil, or bought or made the tools, but the soil and the rain were already there. The roads to get the products to market – were built by all of us together.
We have this ritual to remind us – be thankful, be humble, be grateful, be aware of what you have been given – this land, these gifts. DO NOT FORGET that you are only a sojourner here, only a renter.
Then the portion continues, and reminds us about what we are supposed to do with the gift we bring to the temple. Let’s read:
12 When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield…and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, 13 you shall declare before Adonai your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments.
We not only have to gift it to those people who need help, but we have to verbalize our responsibility to do so.
Then follows another of the litany of curses and blessings in this section of the torah. The criteria come first, then some blessings, then some truly horrific curses. Throughout the torah, we have variations on the requirements of what it means to do God’s will, to walk in God’s ways, there is a lot of overlap, but none are completely congruent. Let’s look at this portion’s list.
27:15 Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by Adonai, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.—And all the people shall respond, Amen. (From the Aseret Dibrot – Ten Commandments)
16 Cursed be he who insults his father or mother.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (Again, from the Aseret Dibrot.)
17 Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (The Torah is concerned with business integrity often; see the Holiness Code, for example.)
18 Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (Again, from the Holiness Code: do not put a stumbling block before the blind.)
19 Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (The concern for this trio who represent all the vulnerable and disenfranchised, is another regular theme in the Torah.)
20 Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife, for he has removed his father’s garment.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (The next four verses address sexual immorality, that shows a disregard for people, for family unity and which can cause considerable strife. But notice, no comments about homosexuality.)
21 Cursed be he who lies with any beast.—And all the people shall say, Amen.
22 Cursed be he who lies with his sister, whether daughter of his father or of his mother.—And all the people shall say, Amen.
23 Cursed be he who lies with his mother-in-law.—And all the people shall say, Amen.
24 Cursed be he who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (This is the second mention of doing something in secret, in which doing it in any way is clearly not useful in a just society. But the secret component adds a level of dissonance. Someone else could be blamed, setting up a Hatfield/McCoy scenario.)
25 Cursed be he who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (Beyond obvious.)
26 Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them.—And all the people shall say, Amen.
We are concerned, as always with worshipping false gods, with honoring our parents and with integrity when dealing with our neighbors. We are also very concerned with how we treat the least among us, the most vulnerable: the widow and orphan, the person with disabilities, the teacher and clergy, the immigrant. We are really concerned with sexual impropriety within the family – and all the damage that can cause. We are worried about bestiality… And then we are worried about violence and taking lives…
What do you think about these priorities for a just society?
As we get closer and closer to Rosh Hashanah and we think about what we’ve done well, and what could use a little work, I pray that we all see ourselves as striving to build a society that takes care of the vulnerable, honors our elders, especially our parents, treats each person with respect for their bodies and souls, and takes us away from violence, falsehood and false gods. May each of us explore our relationships to each of these… and be mindful of how to bring ourselves more in line with these priorities…