Ki Tavo: First Fruits and Flawed Vessels

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Greetings from the sunny Poughkeepsie! It’s been overcast and rainy
the past few weeks so it’s nice to feel some warmth today. Our Torah
portion, Ki Tavo, puts us in mind of warm summer days by teaching us
the ritual of the “first-fruits,” in which a sojourner to Jerusalem
brought a basket of first-fruits to the priest and recited a history
of the Israelite nation from the time of Yaakov, through the Egyptian
oppression, the Exodus, and the entry into the Land. (Some of you may
be familiar with this passage from the text of the Passover haggadah,
where it is subject to explication and interpretation.)

The ritual of the “first fruits” is a rich source for reflections on
history, prayer, and gratitude, but in one small detail also teaches
us something about the relationship between religious leadership and
spiritual experience. We are told that the one traveling to Jerusalem
brings his basket of produce to the priest:

“You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, ‘I
acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the
land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.’ ” (D’varim/
Deuteronomy 26:3)

Our teacher Rashi, quoting the Talmud, interprets the phrase “in
charge at that time” [literally, “who is in those days”] as meaning
“you don’t have any other priest except the one in your time, however
he is.” Rashi brings this interpretation because the Torah could have
just said: “go to the priest and say. . . .” and it would be obvious
that one goes to the priest who is actually there. Thus, by specifying
“in charge at that time,” the Torah is teaching- according to Rashi’s
view- that even if the priest in charge at any particular time wasn’t
so great compared to others, one still had to go to him, give him the
basket, and recite the prayer of gratitude.

In other words, one is not released from the mitzvah [commandment] to
connect with the history, land, and God of Israel just because one
particular priest happens to have off-putting flaws. The priest is
merely a vessel, a spiritual catalyst, and should not be a stumbling
block to the experience of wonderment and thanksgiving which the
sacred place of Jerusalem might otherwise evoke.

I think what was true for the priests of Jerusalem is equally true of
rabbis and cantors, and presumably of other clergy and spiritual
teachers as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people
say that they aren’t going to synagogue because of the rabbi, or
because of the cantor, or the Board politics, or . . . . well, lots of
reasons. I often wonder how bad things really are, or whether the
rabbi’s (or cantor’s, or president’s) flaws are merely the screen upon
which to project spiritual insecurity. After all, a real spiritual
experience can be profoundly transformative, compelling us to grow
and change and go forth in entirely unexpected ways. It’s a lot easier
to avoid growth than embrace it, but embracing growth means risking
relationship, with both other people and with God.

“You don’t have any other priest except the one in your time.” In
other words, do not let expectations of human perfection become a
stumbling block to connecting with others- not in your spiritual life,
or anywhere else. You don’t have any other family except your family,
you don’t have any other community except your community, and you
don’t have any other society except your society- all of whom are
flawed, and all of whom need you to bring yourself to them with a full
and open heart, so that we can find love and gratitude here and now,
just as our ancestors did in the courtyards of Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, the first link has a summary of the Torah portion and
further commentary, and the second link leads to the text of the
portion and haftarah, and further commentary:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/kitavo_index.htm

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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