Parashat Ki Tavo

The Order of Disorder

A word and its opposite may be one and the same.

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A Common Destiny

The texts for this Shabbat refract our common destiny in the fluid fate of ancient Israel. The parashah opens with a scene of peace and prosperity. Once settled in the land of promise, Israelite farmers are to journey to the country's central sanctuary with the first fruits of their annual harvest to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. It is the bounty of the soil that enables them also to share of their produce with their vulnerable fellow-citizens in a poor-tithe.

But that idyll of pastoral tranquility quickly gives way to a horrific litany of national calamities. The covenant with God is not an unmixed blessing. Israel's infidelity will lead to defeat, deportation and exile. Endless sights of suffering will drive many to distraction. As strangers in foreign lands, Israelites will be smitten with an inescapable sense of precariousness.

And yet the covenant is not abrogated. Contrition and atonement will be followed by restoration. Exile is not to be Israel's irreversible condition. This week's haftarah of consolation-- the sixth of seven between Tisha B'Av and Rosh Hashanah-- soars with images of reconciliation and redemption. The exiles will soon come streaming back. Their oppressors will cease to revile them and hasten to rebuild Jerusalem for them. Bathed by God's presence, Jerusalem will emit an effusion of light that will free it of need for the sun by day or by night.

And your people, all of them righteous,

Shall possess the land for all time;

They are the shoot that I [God] planted.

My handiwork in which I glory.

The smallest shall become a clan;

The least, a mighty nation.

I the Lord will speed it in due time. (Isaiah 60:21-22)

Still, till then instability remains the actual order of our daily lives, individually and collectively. Samson's riddle is the key to the riddle of life. As 9/11 reminds us so painfully, chaos lies in wait to shatter our equilibrium beyond endurance and recovery. The recognition of that vulnerability is encoded in the very fabric of the Hebrew language, because the mission of religion is to help us master life.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.