January 18, 2020

Weekly Parsha: Ki Tavo

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And there, you shall build an altar to the Lord, your God, an altar of stones. You shall not wield any iron upon them. –Deuteronomy 27:5

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch
Chief Innovation Officer, American Jewish University

On Christmas Eve, months before my bat mitzvah, the priest of Westminster Abbey signaled for 1,800 congregants to rise for the holy sacrament; 1,796 people rose. The other four were Jews: my parents, brother and me. My parents looked unfazed, having anticipated the moment. My brother and I sank in embarrassment beneath the pews, just catching glimpses of parishioners ascending the altar for Communion. From then on, I viewed altars as places to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. 

Later I learned that after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud (B.T. Hagigah 27a) declared the Shabbat table as the surrogate altar. From that day forward, I was determined that my Shabbat table would never resemble what I experienced in the abbey. 

Every Friday night as we partake in wine, sprinkle salt on challah, then devour its fleshy center, I know our rituals aren’t exactly London circa 1981; yet they are similar in profound ways. When Moses commanded us to build an altar like our ancestors before him, he was instructing us to create a spiritual center — a place to gather, atone, worship, reflect and pray. Regardless of your faith, these are holy practices that will raise you from a sunken place to stand in God’s light.

Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein
Milken Middle School rabbi

Both Rashi and Rambam, in connection to this verse, cite a beautiful rabbinic dictum from the Mishna (Middot 3:4): That which shortens a person’s life should not be lifted upon that which gives life. Iron tools which could kill or maim have no place when it comes to building a sacred space meant to sustain the Jewish people and further their connection with God. Like the unblemished animals required for sacrifice, the stones for the altar had to remain untouched by human innovation. The altar demanded a kind of perfection, but it was the perfect beauty found in nature, not the kind crafted by human beings and our tools. 

If an altar should not be built with tools that can maim or kill, then we shouldn’t be able to build a modern altar or sanctuary in a way that, God forbid, hurts or kills people. Religious life is meant to be nourishing and life-giving. Traditionally considered an altar as well, our tables are places of connection, gratitude and sustenance. There is a custom of covering knives before reciting the weekday Birkat ha-Mazon (cited in Shulchan Aruch OC 180:5), which commentaries trace back to our verse. Even a weeknight dinner, according to this custom, can be holy with the right level of mindfulness and gratitude. As we create a space for the Divine, the human process — the when and the how — matters.

Rabbi Mendel Schwartz
VP program and development, Chai Center 

It was 1200 B.C.E. when the Jewish people built an altar of stones upon entering the land of Israel with their new leader, Joshua. This altar was a national monu-
ment. Under King Solomon’s reign, the nation-
al monument was the Jeru-salem Temple. And after its destruction,the national monument splintered to individual temples and synagogues. Every family today gets to choose where they want to pray and be affiliated. This is a good thing. 

However, 65% of the Jewish people are not affiliated. They will not go to a synagogue this High Holy Days season. They are the largest denomination, “Jews for Nothing.” They will not be building any altars of stones, nor are they buying tickets to any temple this year. They are no longer seeking Jewish monuments. If you know such a person in Los Angeles, be a rock of Israel and tell them about the Chai Center’s free High Holy Days services at the Writers Guild. 

Let us thus be like Joshua and ensure that all 12 tribes of the Jewish people attend and witness a national altar, and listen to the song of Avinu Malkeinu — our Father, our King.

Rabbi Ari Segal
Head of School, Shalhevet

Why are sincere connections so hard to create? Personally, I find that the hardest part about developing sincere friendships and relationships is making myself vulnerable to someone else. Vulnerability is the engine of sincere relationships, but vulnerability is also scary. If given the choice, I would much prefer to gloss over my deepest anxieties, concerns and insecurities and focus on my successes and accomplishments. But without the blemishes, cracks, and imperfections of vulnerability, the connection always will be superficial. 

Regarding the altar in the Temple, the source for our devotional connection to God, we are told that it must be an altar of stone — unshaped by iron. It’s a strange condition — Maimonides assumes that it was a pagan practice to smooth their altars with metal. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests something quite moving. Sure, a stone that is shaped and perfected with iron may be more beautiful, more regal and more impressive on the altar. But the altar, representing a sincere connection to God, needed to be unhewn. The stone of the altar, untouched by the exacting craft of iron, had all its clefts, crevasses and unevenness intact. The stone could not be perfect because they had to model vulnerability. As eloquently sung by Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything —that’s how the light gets in.” And each crack and fissure in the unhewn stones of the altar reminds us of where that sincere light emerges.

Dini Coopersmith
Lecturer and trip coordinator, womensreconnectiontrip.com

In this Torah portion, the Jewish people, who are finally on their way into the Land, are to build an altar, upon which they will make offerings to thank God for all the good that He has done for them. On this altar, no iron or metal can be used, only stone. In fact, if a knife or any metal tool was to be used, this would desecrate the altar and render it unusable. Why? 

Rav S.R. Hirsch comments that when the Jewish nation finally achieves its end-goal and purpose by being a light unto the nations, the altar will be the symbol of Jewish justice (the Sanhedrin, the central authority for Jewish law, would sit next to the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem). Therefore, the sword or metal weapons, instruments of violence and force, will have no place anymore. 

The Jewish nation at its core is about justice, humaneness, bringing spirituality, morality and Godliness into the world; not about giving up life, destroying others or ourselves. Some other religions advocate a need to wage “holy war” for God, to teach children to hate and terrorize, to destroy infidels, etc. We do not. If we go to war, it is in order to defend ourselves, our families and our country, but we prefer to live in peace and generate our light outward. May the time come speedily in our days when “nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will we learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)