Friday, September 12, 2014

Telling the Story, Writing the Story: Ki Tavo


         A good story touches the heart like few other things can.  Where facts and arguments too often fall short, a compelling narrative can succeed.  Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud are filled with narratives that we are required to retell time and time again in order to shape who we are and who our children will become.  It is no coincidence that the most popular Jewish text and pedagogical tool is the haggadah, which just means, "the story."
      In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we are told which story we need to tell when bringing our fruit offerings before God.  In Deuteronomy 26, we are required to tell the story of the Exodus before we give our gifts on the altar.  In a nutshell, we proclaim, "our ancestors were threatened so we went down to Egypt, we were oppressed in Egypt as slaves, and then the mighty hand of God redeemed us from our captivity and brought us to the Promised Land. Now, as we stand in this Promised Land, we give You this gift as an offering of thanks and as an acknowledgement of Your saving power."  After we tell the story, we must prostrate and place our fruits before God. Then we are commanded in Deuteronomy 26:11

יא. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ:

11Then, 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.

In order to give a gift worthy of God, you must come to terms with your past (both the good and the bad) and thank God for your blessings.  But even after you have provided your offering, you have not completed all of the commandments at hand.  Once you have laid down your fruits, you are commanded to rejoice with all of your gifts.  You must appreciate your abundance and be happy with it. Then, you must share it with those who are reliant on your generosity: your servants (the Levites) and the strangers among you.
        To be a Jew, you must never forget or disassociate from your people's story.  You must tell it time and time again to remember where you have come from. You must repeat it always in order to remember the blessings that have brought you to your current position.  You must pass the story from generation to generation, so that it flows easily from the lips of your children and your students.  You must tell it every year, so that you are so comfortable with the story, so confident in its telling, that you can embellish it and continue to write it.  It is not only incumbent upon us to repeat our great narrative, but also to make the story our own, to implement its lessons in our lives, and to write the next chapters.  We must rejoice in blessing, and create a world where others can celebrate blessings with us.  This is what it means to be a light unto the nations, this is what it means to internalize the story and make the promise of a redeemed world a reality.  We are not a people united by blood, but by a great story we are committed to preserving, learning from, and continue writing -- across the globe and for all time.  What a great blessing and responsibility to remember as we approach a new year.

Shanah Tovah u'mitukah.