Yom Rivii, 17 Tishri 5780
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Parashat Ki Tavo 2013

Parashat Ki Tavo
Rabbi Janet Darley

23 August 2013

Ki Tavo sets out various aspects of a ceremony to be undertaken by the Israelites when they enter the land. It includes the setting up of large stones, coating them with plaster and writing on them the words of the teaching they have received. (Deuteronomy 27:1-8) “And on these stones you shall inscribe every word of this teaching most distinctly.”

Their journey in the wilderness offered a long and difficult learning experience and there was plenty to remember. Now as they settle down to create a society, they are to set out the injunctions and teachings which are necessary for the society to function and make these rules visible to all.

This isn’t too surprising—we have some similar civic signs don’t we? “Don’t walk on the grass”; “No right turn”; “Give this seat to someone less able to stand”. “No ball games.” And some of the rules were like that—for example: “When you build a new house, put a parapet on the roof” or “If you find your neighbour’s ox or sheep you must return it to him” or “You shall not move your neighbour’s landmarks”, but some of the injunctions of Torah go beyond just keeping civil society ticking over. Some of them go to the heart of how the society they were to build would look if they were to merit God’s presence among them, if they were to be a kehillah kedoshah

Over the last month or so I have become convinced we could do with some large billboards ourselves. We could certainly use one reading “Do not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, maybe even driving this one around London. And perhaps some reminders on our High Streets “A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken to pawn, for that would be taking someone’s life in pawn” and “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute labourer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.”

Some other ideas that still carry force today include “Justice, justice shall you pursue...” and “you shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless.”

Ki Tavo goes on to a section of curses which we usually do not read, but they leave no doubt about the seriousness of some of these rules.

“Cursed be the one who insults father or mother. “Cursed be the one who moves a neighbour’s landmark” “Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”

For our Israelite ancestors, the entry into their promised land marked an enormous transition. It is usual to mark transitions with ceremonies and rituals of some kind. Often these ceremonies are accompanied by soul searching and self-reflection and by the determination to improve, “to turn over a new leaf” so to speak. When we move into a

new home, we dream of what our life will look like and think about how we will use the new space and these dreams probably include some resolves—“I am going to recycle the newspapers and not let them pile up”,” I’m going to mow the grass every week” etc. We even re-enact the ritual of posting extracts from Torah when we put up a mezuzah as our own miniature reminder of the covenant.

As a Jewish community, we are also, at this time of year, in a transition period. As we approach the beginning of a New Year, we, like those ancient Israelites, stand poised on the threshold of a new beginning. Both our cheshbon ha nefesh and our need to turn, to improve, to be better people is at the heart of our prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As time passes, we may forget our vows as we go about our daily lives; we risk forgetting what we should be doing in the face of the pressures we all encounter. Since we can’t expect the government to erect signs to remind us of our obligations to others, we must find a way to put into our own minds this sort of signage. We need to remember to live our lives based on what we know of our obligations as Jews. To be grateful for the creation in which we live and to preserve it, to speak out against injustice, to stand with the oppressed; all these are required of us. Perhaps we might ponder these words from Aaron Zeitlin:

“If you look at the stars and yawn, If you see suffering and don’t cry out, If you don’t praise and don’t revile, Then I created you in vain, says God.”