By David Cohen, Director of Congregational Learning
As a leader of many youth trips and tours in Israel, the Torah portions at the end of the summer have a special place in my heart. There is something about being able to stand on a hill in Jerusalem – or anywhere in Israel – and ask young people to imagine an aging Moses actually delivering his final words to the people of Israel, before they are to enter the land of Israel. The group assembled generally knows about this moment in the Biblical narrative and these are the elements they are the most familiar with – the Shema and the V’ahavta – when we are told of the obligation to teach our children according to the commandments handed down at Sinai. In other places in the Torah we merely recount what is said or taught to the people of Israel at this very moment.
In Parashat Ki Tavo, we have a continuation of these instructions and are presented with yet another breathtaking scene that can be role played quite effectively on an Israel trip or even on a hike in the hills of Orange County. We are told in Chapter 27, verse 9, that Moses and the levitical priests say to all Israel “Silence! Hear o’ Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God…” Now that, in and of itself, is a fairly striking moment. An entire people being told to be silent, to listen, and that today, they have become what they were meant to be – the people about to fulfill the covenant between Abraham and God.
But what about this day was really the crystalizing moment of “peoplehood?” In verse 11 we are told that Moses “charged the people saying: after you have crossed the Jordan, the following (tribes) shall stand on Mount Gerizem when the blessing for the people is spoken … and for the curse the following (tribes) shall stand upon Mount Ebal. The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people Israel …”
What is being depicted – if you can picture it – is a scene where ALL the people of Israel are standing on mountain tops, with their leaders about to proclaim to them actions for which they will be “blessed” and actions for which they will be “cursed.” And after these proclamations are made, all the people, together, would shout “Amen!” Rabbi Dorothy Richman, writing for the American Jewish World Service, focuses on this communal “Amen!” and what it means to publically agree to what will give you blessings and what will leave you cursed. There are some that get stuck on the fact that agreeing to be “cursed” is an uncomfortable way to think about Mitzvot. However, others interpret the idea of being “cursed” as simply that which will leave you as a less fulfilled human being. And in this debate – and in the power of a communal, public acknowledgment of our desire for human growth – I found my epiphany for this week’s D’var Torah.
In writing about individual betterment for our High Holy Days publication, it seemed only fitting that this concept be led down the path to what is even more powerful than an individual commitment to betterment. And that is a communal, public proclamation of a commitment to those same principals of betterment and just behavior. And honestly, it was only after this weekend’s TBS Board Retreat that this idea crystalized in my own mind. One part of our discussion revolved around the idea of relationships and helping people join us on a path of self-reflection and personal growth. It seemed that by the end of the weekend, there was an agreement that modeling an ethos of connecting with each other while searching for and wrestling with what it means to be Jewish was equally as important as anything else we, as leaders, had to do.
After one exercise during the retreat, there was a moment when a particular board member was reflecting on how powerful it was to connect to a fellow board member in a deeper way than they ever had. They not only appreciated the opportunity to connect in this way, but also sensed that they had grown closer in that moment and would only continue to grow even closer. And they felt they also grew individually, having reached beyond themselves to connect to someone in this way. There was also a sense that everyone in the room who went through this exercise felt the same way (Amen!)
And in that moment, for me, just being present when others were proclaiming their own growth and their own connection with our community, I thought of how powerful that was to witness. And then I thought of Parashat Ki Tavo. I imagined these leaders being the Levites, proclaiming to the congregation, publicly, what it meant to be a member of TBS or, put another way, what it means to be a partner in the work of the TBS community. And then I thought of the entirety of Israel, or the TBS community, saying right back to them, “Yes! We agree! We are with you! Amen!”
And then I also imagined that when we gather as a community on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that this, in a sense is what we are doing. Together, publicly, as a community – we are agreeing to the precepts Moses laid out for us that he knew would make us better people, a blessed community, and a people worthy of carrying on Abraham’s covenant with God. And we say, Amen!