Transitions and Israel

As a people, wherever the Jews are, we have a remarkable and noble mission.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8

Throughout our lives, we make numerous transitions and undergo various rites of passage, of both a formal and informal nature, consciously or unconsciously. Frequently these transitions are marked by ceremony and ritual of some kind: a brit bat or brit milah, a bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah, a mikveh immersion, a wedding. These are solemn moments, both for ourselves and for our closest relatives. Often they are accompanied by self-scrutiny, a vow, and a determination to improve, to “turn over a new leaf.” The same is true of the beginning of each new year; indeed, this is the central theme of our prayers on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It also holds good when we move into a new home, freshly decorated, the walls clean and as yet unmarked by greasy fingers, the windows crystal-clear and gleaming, the empty rooms waiting to be filled with our lives. Parashat Ki Tavo begins with a ceremony that marks the entry into the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 26:1-10): as an expression of gratitude, the people are to bring a basket filled with the first fruits of the land’s bounty and to recount the events that led to the long-awaited settlement of the land.

When Benjamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl gave expression to his extraordinary prophetic vision of a Jewish state in both Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) and Altneuland (Old-New Land), he described a new community, one in which the land would be developed through science and technology, in which there would be tolerance in all spheres, and which would be organized socially on a cooperative (“mutualist”) basis. The pioneers of the Second Aliyah, motivated by similar lofty ideals, developed precisely this kind of cooperative way of life when they founded the kvutzot and kibbutzim that became a hallmark of the new socialist communities–and eventually of the autonomous State of Israel. The Declaration of Independence drawn up by the founders of the state in 1948 also proclaimed equality of all citizens, irrespective of race, religion, or gender. Fundamental concepts of social justice, many of which are rooted in the precepts of Deuteronomy, ground much of the legislation passed by Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) from its inception. Indeed, Israel was one of the first countries to pass a law stipulating equality between women and men. For most of the first fifty years of its existence, Israel was a welfare state. Underlying this new venture was not only divine promise but also the memory of past suffering, both recent and long gone by. When Herzl had presented his amazing plan to the Rothschild family, requesting their financial help in turning his dream into reality, he wrote: “We are talking about a simple old matter–the exodus from Egypt.”

Almost the entire Book of Deuteronomy is a reprise, not only of the events of the 40 years in the wilderness (which the people Moses is addressing have not witnessed themselves), but also of the commandments first encapsulated in the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai and later elaborated in the long, detailed catalogues of precepts and prohibitions. Now, in Ki Tavo and the passages that follow, the time has come to look toward the entry into the new home, to review the covenant, and to rededicate oneself-individually and as a people-by first acknowledging the fact that God has fulfilled the promise given to our forebears.

This is to be immediately followed by an expression of awareness of past suffering-not necessarily one’s own, but that of the collective. Remembrance of things past is an essential part of developing a new identity, beginning a new existence. The formulation of this memory in the First Fruits ceremony, with its reference to the “fugitive” or “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5), surely stirs within the modern reader recollections of the trials and tribulations of Jews in the Diaspora, which culminated in the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust.

The purpose of these recollections is to stimulate us to behave differently from those who oppressed us–to give to “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill” (Deut. 26:12). Being the favored of God entails duties and responsibilities. Failure to observe is to be cursed; obedience brings blessings, prosperity, fruitfulness. Above all, doing God’s bidding means that Israel will be established as “God’s holy people” (28:9) and will be “the head, not the tail” (Deut. 28:13). In contrast, the detailed, terrifyingly graphic list of horrors that will be heaped upon the people if they fail to abide by God’s laws ends with perhaps the direst of warnings: to be scattered among ail the peoples “from one end of the earth to another” (Deut. 28:64) and, worst of all, to become slaves once again (Deut. 28:68). The message of Parashat Ki Tavo applies to us even now, whether we live in Israel or in the Diaspora. To justify Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and homeland, it must forever strive to be a “light unto the nations” and not a state like any other. As a people, wherever we are, we have a remarkable and noble mission to fulfill God’s precepts, whether they deal with ourselves and our relationship to the Divine or — more concretely — with our relationships with our fellow human beings, all of whom have been created in the divine image.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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