Archive for Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo: Rejoicing Together

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

“Then you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 26:11)

Good morning!

Sorry for not sending out Torah commentaries the past two weeks; the end of the summer kind of caught up with me and the time slipped away. But we’re back and ready to learn! This week’s Torah portion begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim, or first-fruits. The basic idea is that during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, a basket of produce was brought to the Temple and given to a priest, who sets it by the altar while the pilgrim recites a short paragraph recalling the history of Israel from the days of Jacob, through the slavery in Egypt, to the present day giving of thanks in Jerusalem.

What’s interesting about this mitzvah is the ordering of the ritual: first one brought the basket, then the recitation of history, which linked one’s own life to that of the Jewish people, and then the rejoicing and sharing, as in the verse above, with the stranger and the Levite. First is the universal experience of gratitude: God gave us this blessing of the land. Then the linking of an individual life with the history and destiny of the people Israel; my life, my blessing, my good fortune, is part of something larger than myself. I am not a solitary actor alone in the world, but part of a community; if I have blessing, it is because I am embedded in the lives of those that came before and those who are not yet born.

How does the ritual of the first fruits conclude? By actualizing this realization of connection in sharing with others; rejoicing with the Levite (who has no share in the land) and the stranger (who not only has no share in the land, but is not yet fully part of the fabric of society) is how we show that we truly understand that the blessings of our lives are not for our own pleasure and ego-gratification but are given for the purpose of expanding our very sense of self. To be Jewish (or perhaps religious in any tradition) is to live knowing that we are interdependent, unable to be fully human all on our own. If we are part of a people whose essence is that we were once slaves but are now free, then we make that insight real by living generously, com passionately, with zeal for both justice and mercy. Knowing our history is humbling; living our lives in relationship is glorious; knowing that we are some future generation’s ancestors sets our perspective towards the things that really matter. Giving to others lifts our spiritual horizons, away from the needs of the self; it is the very act of living.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tavo: Learn Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo 

The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover. . . .  The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness, and dismay.   (Devarim/ Deuteronomy


I’m back!

Friends, I apologize for the long break in providing a weekly commentary. I meant to only take a few weeks off in late July and early August, but one thing turned into another, and I never caught up from time off and unexpected situations at the synagogue.

Enough kvetching, let’s look at this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which begins with a famous commandment to bring our first-fruits to the ancient Temple, in gratitude for our blessings, but ends with a terrible series of curses put upon the people if they do not follow God and Torah. One commentary I read earlier this week suggests that this section of curses is related inversely to the commandment found earlier to love God (cf. Devarim 6.) That is, if we don’t love God, we should at least fear God- and according this theory, the horrors of the curses, including disaster, starvation, disease and even cannibalism, are meant to shock us into realization of the consequences of choosing the wrong path.

It’s possible that this was the plain meaning of these verses in historical context, but exploring of the Bible reveals that the link between suffering and sin is not always so clear. The book of Job makes this most plain, but reading the historical works of the Bible, like Judges, Samuel, and Kings, one realizes that the Biblical authors were perfectly well aware that lots of suffering happens because humans are imperfect beings living in a dangerous world. People start fights and wars, get sick and die, are filled with passion and rage, and it isn’t always the plan of God that these things happen.

In our age, we are even more oriented towards an understanding that bad things can happen for entirely natural reasons; the unfolding of nature and natural laws doesn’t necessarily reflect the particulars of Divine Will. People suffer, whether they have sinned or not, and the best we can do is be prepared for life’s unpredictable unfolding.

That, to me, is the meaning of these terrible curses- disaster, drought and death- that appear in Ki Tavo.  We are never really prepared for suffering, yet it it should be obvious that at any minute, our lives could be utterly disrupted by conditions beyond our control. The Northeast was battered by a hurricane just a few weeks ago; and entire towns were flooded and damaged- who ever thinks that their home might be swept away?

In anticipation of the Days of Awe, the Torah throws something humbling at us: the awareness that our comforts and security are temporary at best. There is no external circumstance which is utterly reliable: our bodies fail, our buildings fall down, our fields are flooded or burned depending on the weather. What we can choose is our communal response to suffering: if we have choose the path of commitment to God and each other, perhaps the experience can be mitigated, just enough. We go forth into the world humbled by the knowledge that we are not God, but called upon to do holy work nevertheless. That’s why the Torah throws such a shocker at us: it asks us to imagine our worst nightmares, precisely so that we call forth a deeper humanity, a greater depth of compassion and spirituality, to be our foundation in times of trouble and our glory in times of peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tavo: Rise and Shine!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

I hope you are enjoying the last days of summer. This is the season when we notice the days getting shorter,
but the theme of radiant light begins (and ends) our haftarah for this

“Arise, shine, for your light has dawned;
The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth,
And thick clouds the peoples;
But upon you the Lord will shine,
And His Presence [will] be seen over you.
And nations shall walk by your light,
Kings, by your shining radiance. (Yeshayahu/ Isaiah 60: 1- 3)

As in previous weeks, we’re in the realm of poetry and metaphor as we
read the seven “haftarot of consolation.” The prophet Yeshayahu
[Isaiah] is speaking to a people in exile, portrayed as darkness,
while the redemption, the return home, is portrayed as a time of
radiant light.

So far, so good, but what’s interesting about the passages above is
the portrayal of two kinds of light: “your light” and “The Presence of
the Lord” [Hebrew “kavod”] which will shine upon the people. The
nations of the world will walk by the light of the people Israel, but
Israel itself will be illumined by God’s Presence- at least, that’s
what it seems to be saying.

Given that light is a metaphor- the people are not physically going to
shine like Glo-Sticks – what does it mean that redemption- return from
exile- is a shining or radiance?

To answer that question, let’s refer to a midrash- or creative
interpretation of the Torah- from the Talmudic tractate Chagigah. The
question is posed: if God created the sun and stars on the fourth day
of creation, how can it say, “Let there be light” on the first day?
What was that first light of creation if there was no sun and stars?

The rabbis postulate that the first light was a kind of spiritual
illumination, which enabled people to see from one end of the world to
another. This light was then hidden away for the righteous of a future
time. That is, the first “light” of creation isn’t light at all, in
the sense of waves and energy, but is rather the spiritual insight or
perspective that enables us to see “from one end of the world to
another;” that is, the world in its unity and totality.

Getting back to our haftarah, “your light has dawned” could be
understood as saying: exile, as the paradigmatic suffering, could be
something that wounds your soul and turns the people bitter and cruel.
Letting our light shine after exile means: returning from a period of
suffering ready to lead in kindness and compassion.

After all, the first light of creation showed us the world “from one
end to another”- that is, from the Divine perspective, wherein so much
that divides humankind is revealed as small and insignificant. This
spiritual light- or, in English, what we might call “enlightenment”-
is saved for the righteous, but I see this as a description: the very
definition of righteousness would be the ability to return from exile
shining with compassion and positive faith!

This, then, is how I understand the idea of letting our light shine: I
won’t allow suffering to darken my soul, but instead will further
commit to serving the world in deeds and example. The light of the
Divine – the greater perspective which transcends the narcissism which
can sometimes comes out of painful experiences- is what changes me on
the inside; the light I share with others is how I change the world
through my acts of compassion and spiritual mindfulness. Arise and
shine- because our light comes from within and from a greater Source,
refracted through our hearts into a world which needs our glory.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tavo: Walking The Way

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

This week we’re reading Ki Tavo, which has the them of arriving into
the Land, enjoying its agricultural blessings, and the consequences of
disloyalty- there are blessings for the people if they are loyal to
covenant and curses if they aren’t. In the middle of the blessings
which are promised, there is a verse which seems to be conditional,
but which is interpreted as containing a positive mitzvah [commandment]:

“The Lord will establish you as His holy people, as His swore to you,
if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His
ways.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 28:9)

In its historical context, this fits with the idea (problematic as it
may be) that if the Israelites “do good” in the Land, they are
blessed, and if not. . . oy. The ancient sages, however, read the last
clause of this verse as a general commandment to “walk in God’s ways.”

Well then, if God doesn’t actually “walk” anywhere, what does “walking
in God’s ways” mean?

The Sefer HaHinnuch, which we’ve been quoting a lot recently, says
about this commandment (#611 out of 613 !) that it’s about acting in
right and compassionate ways, like we believe that the Holy One does-
that is, “walking in God’s ways” is emulating qualities of goodness.
Not only that, but Sefer HaHinnuch goes on to say that “walking in
God’s ways” is about developing a moderate and thoughtful character
which avoids extremes and is trained towards the good and right.

What’s interesting about this commandment is that it’s not about doing
any one particular action (like saying the Shma, or waving a lulav),
but about a general spiritual and moral orientation- the mitzvah is to
develop ourselves into becoming people who habitually act in noble
ways. It’s a profoundly inward, personal mitzvah, concerned with how
we take stock of our own spiritual and moral development and guide
ourselves over a lifetime towards greater compassion and connection.

One of my pet peeves is the idea that an individual’s personal
conscience is somehow better or on a higher level than religious
ethics- as if religious people were robots with pre-programmed answers
to complex questions who don’t think for themselves. I find this
perspective absurd because if religion is doing its job (not a given,
by any means), personal conscience is challenged far beyond the limits
of most secular, utilitarian frameworks. If we are thinking about
“walking in God’s ways,” then we have to ask ourselves: am I being
compassionate, generous, forgiving, understanding, helpful, fair, and
just in the ways that I believe are most holy? (Good questions for
Elul before the Days of Awe. . . .)

Seen this way, religion isn’t at all about “having all the answers” –
it’s about struggling with harder questions. “Walking in God’s ways”
requires a “cheshbon hanefesh,” or “accounting of the soul,” in order
to fearlessly assess how we may better orient ourselves towards the
actions which bring about a world of peace, kindness, and justice.
That’s the goal- walking in God’s ways is the path.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tavo: First Fruits on the Way to Jerusalem

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Late Elul greetings to one and all! Although the Days of Awe are just
days away (uh. . yikes!), in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we
encounter a text more associated with Pesach than Rosh Hashanah
(although it’s entirely possible that it was my Thursday ritual of
visiting the farmer’s market that explains our learning this week.)
Here’s the passage at the beginning of the parsha:

“And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God,
gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it,
that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which
you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving
you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which
the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

Thus begins a famous commandment to bring the first fruits of the
harvest to Jerusalem, where one would make a declaration of
thankfulness for all the goodness and blessing God has shown the
people Israel, from the days before the Egyptian slavery until the
very day the blessing is offered. This text becomes part of the
Passover haggadah, but for today, I’m more interested in the first
part of the ritual, in which one takes first fruits [bikkurim] and
gathers them up in a basket to be brought to Jerusalem.

Our good friend Rashi, quoting the Talmudic tractate [called Bikkurim-
duh!] devoted to the ritual of the first-fruits, explains that “taking
of the first of all the fruit of the ground” is actually a process
that begins before the produce is put in the basket. According to this
view, the farmer actually takes an action to designate fruits while
they are still on the tree by tying a reed around a ripening fig (for
example), and saying “this is the first-fruit.” That fruit or produce
is later harvested, put in the basket in one form or another, and
taken to Jerusalem for the ritual of thankfulness.

What struck me about Rashi’s explanation is the thoughtfulness that
goes into the process; it’s not that one suddenly arrives in Jerusalem
ready to give thanks, but rather one has a steady discipline of
creating the conditions under which the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is one
that can result in a great feeling of thankfulness and connection to
the people, land and God of Israel.

The Mishna- by way of Rashi- points out that spiritual experiences
don’t always “just happen,” but are instead cultivated and nurtured. I
think of my own life, and wonder if the contemporary equivalent to
tying the reed around the ripening figs, designating them as
first-fruits, wouldn’t be to plan ahead to create the times and places
where my sense of spiritual connection can unfold. Obviously, we have
Shabbat every week, and times for daily prayer, but setting aside time
to prepare for Shabbat, or putting bikkur holim [visiting the sick] or
Torah study into one’s calendar in advance- preparing the way for the
experience- is probably a key factor in the spiritual discipline. It’s
where the date palm meets the Palm Pilot!

Not many people reading this are farmers with fig trees or grape
vines, but all of us have resources (time, money, energy, compassion,
skills, etc.) to share and at least a few blessings for which to be
grateful. Giving and thanking are fundamentals of a spiritual
orientation, but like first fruits, these practices develop over time,
and connect us to God and each other when we’ve made ourselves ready.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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,


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:

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Ki Tavo: The Blessing is in the Fixing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Shalom on a sunny September day!

We’re approaching the Days of Awe, and not coincidentally, the readings towards
the end
of the book of Devarim/ Deuteronomy urge the Israelites towards reflection and
recommitment. In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, Moshe tells the people that they
must, in
the future, express their thanks to God for bringing them into the land and
teaches them
rituals and a liturgy for doing so.

Building a nation in its Land also requires a social welfare system, and so
special tithes are
set aside for the poor and for the Levites, the Temple assistants, who have no
land of their
own. The latter part of the parsha is called the “tochecha,” or “rebuke,” in
which blessings
are described for those loyal to Torah and great and terrible curses are
promised for those
who defy moral and religious law. Moshe is about to die, so he wants the people
to carry
on the work of Torah after his death- the blessings and curses are a way of
reminding the
nation of what’s at stake.

One of the most famous verses of blessing, often written upon synagogue gates
doors, is from chapter 28:

“Blessed will you be when you come, and blessed will you be when you depart.”
Deuteronomy 28:6)

In context, it is part of the overall “package” of blessings promised to the
nation if they are
loyal and good; blessing will follow us wherever we go, from “from A to Z”, as
it were. So
far, so good. However, our teacher Rashi, basing himself on an earlier
offers an understanding of “when you come and when you depart” which is much
personal and urgent:

Rashi’s comment on this verse:

“For your departure from the world will be without sin, like your arrival into
the world.”

Rashi takes a blessing for the nation and “individualizes” it, but in doing so,
makes two
profound theological statements. First: notice the contrast with the idea of
“original sin.” I
think a normative Jewish view holds that people are not born good nor bad, but
have the
capacity for better or worse (sometimes much worse, even evil) choices.
Sometimes, of
course, that capacity is diminished by trauma, affliction, mental illness, or
other mitigating
factors, but in general, we’re not “sinners,” we’re “choosers.”

This is a crucial point to understand in advance of the Days of Awe. The liturgy
on Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur urges us to account for our deeds- and of course, there
be no “accountability” (in both senses of the term) if we were not free to
choose and thus
responsible for our moral behavior.

Secondly, notice Rashi’s presumption that we can, in fact, exit this world as
free of sin as
when we were born. We are not doomed to carry our mistakes as a terrible burden,
can, in fact, repair our relationships and restore the equilibrium of our souls.
Again, this is
a crucial point for the upcoming season: t’shuvah, or “repentance,” is about our
ability to
fix things, not about feeling shamed and guilty.

We can “exit” this world in blessing if we continually examine our deeds and
repair that in
our lives which is not worthy of our status as Children of the Living God. We do
this by
humbling ourselves, apologizing sincerely to those we have wronged, and seeking
understand and change those patterns of behavior which lead us astray in our
with others.

That’s a basic task of this holy season; it’s not complicated, but it’s not
easy, either. The
promise is this: by doing our t’shuvah, our repair work, we can escape the curse
of guilt
and achieve the blessing of renewed relationship, with ourselves and with

PS- As usual, you can find the text of the parsha and additional commentaries

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