Parashat Ki Tavo: The Deuteronomy Dinner Party: As Many Chairs as We Need

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as 
parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Marisa James discusses how the Biblical injunction to care for the vulnerable applies to today’s LGBT Jews. This week’s Torah Queeries essay was written in 2007.

Creative Common/Toby Simkin
Creative Common/Toby Simkin

As we read Parashat Ki Tavo, we’re also in the midst of the Haftorot of Consolation, which we read every week from Tisha B’Av until the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. We’re also about half-way through the month of Elul, which precedes the beginning of our new year. We are threatened with punishment; we are consoled; we are expected to recite every day of this month our wish to dwell peacefully in the house of God. There’s a lot on our plates, and I know I find it difficult to stay focused on the Parashah or my preparations for the High Holidays when there are such fierce and competing emotions battering me from all sides.

This week we read in Ki Tavo about the punishments that will come if we do not follow the laws of the Torah exactly. To console us after the lists of harsh punishments, we read in the book of Isaiah the Haftorah, which promises us that God doesn’t really mean it, that we are, in fact, the chosen people, who will inherit good days to come. Isaiah has a beautiful vision for us this week, telling us that the day will come when “The cry ‘Violence!’ shall no more be heard in your land, nor ‘Wrack and ruin!’ within your borders. […] The smallest shall become a clan; the least, a mighty nation.” (Isaiah 60:18, 22)

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. about his dreams. In the midst of the civil rights movement, King did not hope that one day Kenyan or Haitian or Jamaican children would be free; he dreamt of a day when all black people, and all people, would be free. King looked beyond the limits of his own community to dream that “we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Over the course of the summer I wrote this essay, I’ve heard three different conversations about activism in queer communities. In those three conversations, I heard variations on the following: “It’s not working because gay men and lesbians actually have nothing in common,” and “Transgendered people have their own issues to deal with – we should stay focused on ours,” and even “Why should I give money to the AIDS foundation? It’s all straight people spreading it now.” How on earth can Isaiah’s promise come true, when the smallest doesn’t want to be a clan, and the least refuses to join a mighty nation?

In the beginning of Ki Tavo, we’re given a few instructions about being thankful. The first fruits of our labors are to be given to God, after which “you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deuteronomy 26: 11). After this, our obligation to be thankful and share our blessings with others does not end; instead, “When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the Lord 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.” (Deuteronomy 26:12-13)

First, we are to share with the Levite and the stranger. In the third year, we add chairs to the table and extend our hospitality to the fatherless and the widow. Who are all of these people? The Levites are the priests, our leadership. The stranger is our obligation, the person not of our own community; it is a blessing to welcome the stranger to our home and table. The fatherless and the widow we can understand as those without protection, people who don’t have a community structure to lean on or a place at the table. It’s an interesting mix; for example, what does the Levite have in common with the widow? But all are expected to share a table despite their differences and share the fruits of the harvest.

Coretta Scott King also understood that everyone had to come to the table. “My husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ On another occasion he said, ‘I have worked too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible.’ Like Martin, I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.” (June 23, 1994)

If the queer community is ever going to make large strides forward, it will depend on all of us being part of a true community. We don’t need to have the same issues, the same concerns, the same eating habits, the same family structures… but we do have to share a desire for justice and a sense of purpose. If we are sitting at different tables in our own small rooms we’ll achieve very little. But if we come together and share the fruits of our labors, if those of us who are leadership sit down with the unprotected, if those of us who feel orphaned by society sit down with the big shots, if we are all sometimes willing to be the stranger at the dinner party, then we can begin to be consoled by having a place at the table.

As we approach the High Holidays, think of the lines of Psalm 27, which we read during the month of Elul: “One thing I ask of God, only that do I seek: to live in the house of God all the days of my life” (Psalms 27:4). This year, seek your place in the divine, but without forgetting the importance of your place at the table.

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Moses instructs the Israelites regarding the first fruit offering; Moses then lists the blessings for keeping the commandments and the punishments for disobeying them.