May 22, 2019

Table for Five: Ki Tavo

Weekly Parsha: One verse, Five Voices
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

God did not give you a heart to know, or eyes
to see, or ears to hear, until this day, –
Deuteronomy 29:3

Rabbi Yehuda Mintz
Recovery Through Torah
Do you remember when you first learned how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle? Many had a set of training wheels, and only when you and your parents felt confident that you’d be able to “balance” yourself were the extra wheels removed. 

Until now, HaShem had us living our lives with training wheels: the miracles of our Exodus from Egypt; the splitting of the Red Sea; Miriam’s well of water; the daily manna that fell from heaven; our clothes and shoes that never wore out; the heavenly cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that were our guides (our ancient GPS) circuitously directing us to the Promised Land; God speaking to us and gifting us with the Torah; Moses, our teacher, teaching us the Torah; his brother, Aaron the High Priest, showing us the rituals that should reflect our unique and holy way of life. 

We arrived not at the end of the road but at the fulfillment of God’s promise made to our patriarchs and matriarchs. We were at the start of a new road, the training wheels removed. We were to be a free, independent, holy people in our Promised Holy Land. 

We are commanded to feel gratitude to God with our hearts. Our eyes are to see the good in all of God’s creations, all of humanity, creatures and nature. We are to hear and thus listen to what God asks of us, to live humbly and lovingly in the fulfillment of his eternal promise to us, his eternal people. 

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish UniversityWhen two people have a deeply personal conversation, we call it a “heart-to-heart.” When we want to cut to the central idea, we say we want to get to the “heart of the matter.” Though the heart is the place where the soul resides, it is, at its most basic level, simply a pump consisting of two sides separated by a wall. 

Yet, in these instances of honest, sometimes vulnerable, and insightful exchange, a different awareness takes over. The conversation flows and, in the blink of an eye, it becomes an encounter of deep honesty, vulnerability at times, and/or profound intellectual insight. Something passes between the two people, and the moment becomes charged with connection, validation, support, love and/or knowledge, leaving one or both forever changed. 

As Moses is about to deliver his final charge to the people (which will take up the rest of the Torah), he reminds them of their own journey through the wilderness. And he invites them (and us) to consider the blessings of experiencing all that has happened since leaving Egypt as a meeting of the soul, the part of us that sees clearly, experiences truth, and is forever connected and embraces change. 

Until this day — today and every day, we are invited to such moments with God that stir the heart, open the eyes to new visions and the ears to new voices. 

Rabbi Gail Labovitz
American Jewish University
This is a very strange, disturbing verse. Given all that the children of Israel experienced in the time of Moses’ leadership, from the plagues to the Exodus to the revelation at Sinai to being sustained by manna and the clouds of glory for 40 years in the wilderness, have they really never understood God’s care for them before now? 

Doesn’t this verse contradict others, such as Exodus 14:31, after the miracle at the Sea: “And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses”? I’m struck, then, by a very brief comment offered by the talmudic rabbi Rabbah in Avodah Zara 5b: “We derive from this that a person does not fully ascertain the knowledge of one’s teacher until after forty years.” It just so happens that as I write this, I am approaching the 40th anniversary of my bat mitzvah celebration. 

It’s no great revelation to admit that there was a great deal I didn’t understand yet as a girl on the cusp of adolescence. There have been many experiences and events to teach me since then: a year living in Israel, rabbinical school and a doctorate, 30 years of marriage, child-raising, deaths of loved ones, and much more. 

Forty years after becoming a Jewish adult, I appreciate this reminder that the ultimate goal is to have the mind, eyes and ears to understand God’s miracles on my behalf.

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Temple Ner Simcha
The 13th-century mystic Rumi taught, “Mysteries are not meant to be solved.  The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.” This Torah portion reminds us that our senses are not only for understanding the physical world, but also for deepening our spiritual relationship with God.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, it is crucial to remember this teaching. All year, we easily forget what is important and get caught up in our physical experience.  What we see or hear distracts us, keeping us in a cycle of concern only about physical needs and passions. Mortgages, school, finances and the like become our focus. We pay attention to distractions that we see rather than remembering that sight itself is miraculous. We focus on the music instead of being in awe that God created humans with musical talent. This passage reminds us to step back for a moment, re-evaluate our lives and remember the purpose of our souls.

Cheshbon ha-nefesh, an “accounting of the soul,” is the process we are to utilize during this time to look at our life practices and values. Have I really lived a life of depth? Have my priorities been reflected in my behavior? We must not be distracted by the glitter and sounds, but instead focus on the deeper desires of our soul.

In this new year, may we all be blessed to truly take an accounting of ourselves without distractions of physicality, and reconnect to a deeper love and relationship with God.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, Washington, D.C.
I traveled this summer to see with my own eyes the Grand Canyon and to blast the shofar in that sacred space. I wanted to recite special prayers for the month of Elul on behalf of our congregation, and I thought what better location than this spectacular place. Looking around at the majestic canyon moved me to a great spiritual moment. I was so awed by where I was that I blasted the shofar with all my might. The sound echoed through the canyon. 

Next thing I know, a man who heard the sound of the shofar came over to me and said, “Can you please blow the shofar again? My mother’s mother was Jewish and I would like you to say a prayer for her.” It didn’t stop there. People started lining up to tell me their Jewish connection and to tell me that they, too, wanted to hear the shofar. 

I asked the park ranger (who also had asked for a special prayer) how often a shofar is blasted in the Grand Canyon. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Rabbi, this never happens. Thank you so much. We never get to hear this!” 

I was blown away by the amazing sight of the Grand Canyon. But all the Grand Canyon ranger wanted to do was to hear the sound of the shofar. This reminded me just how special and beautiful it is to hear the sound of the shofar — especially for the first time.