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Monday, March 8, 2021

Table for Five: Ki Tavo

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

I led you through the wilderness for forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. You neither ate bread, nor drank wine nor other intoxicating drink, so that you would know that I am the Lord, your God.  Deuteronomy. 29:4-54-5


Dini Coopersmith
Director, Women’s Reconnection Trip 

After all the curses, where life promises to be very dire indeed if we, the Jewish people, fail to keep the Torah and mitzvot in happiness and goodness of heart, God gives us a hint as to how to achieve true joy. Finally, after 40 years, we are about to enter the land of Israel, and God stresses all the ways in which He has taken care of us, so that we “will know that He is your God.” If we appreciate all the details of kindnesses that God has shown us, from the time we were born until this very day, we will be happy. 

If we focus on what we lack instead of appreciating the blessing in what we have, we will be miserable. 

When we appreciate, we develop a deep trust in the Almighty, we know that He loves us, and does only good. Then we will develop serenity and joy. At the end of this complicated and unusual pandemic-marred year, we can choose to focus on the inconveniences and challenges, or we can see incredible benefits: how we connected through Zoom to more Torah learning and self-growth, how we were physically closer than ever to our families, how we realized that our choice of where to live need not be dependent on a workplace because so much can be accomplished remotely. When we focus on the good, this will lead us to realize that we can trust God, which will lead us to a joyful and serene new year. 

David Porush
Student, teacher, author at davidporush.com

Not one happy hour in 40 years? 

Well, it was impractical to grow a vineyard or grain for spirits when you don’t know when you’re going to be wandering again. So why does the Torah even mention it? 

And why in a list of things to be grateful for? The key is in the story of the spies. They brought back giant grapes, showing off the promise of the land to produce wine but also a fearful report, so their entire generation is forced to wander. But what’s the punishment when God provided them with everything they needed? 

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) taught that the spies had the loftiest intention. Relieved of work, they wanted to continue to live in spiritual bliss dedicated to delving into God and Torah. The austerity of the desert gave them unimpeded communion with God. Occupying Canaan and the promise of wine were both threats. Wine meant plowing, planting, harvesting and fermenting — a poor substitute for transcendent intoxication. The spies feared that in conquering Israel and doing all the pedestrian work to survive on their own and build a nation, they would crash from their spiritual high. Their sandals would wear out and their feet would touch the dust, just as our verses are telling us: I took care of all your needs and deprived you of wine and booze so you would be intoxicated with Me.

Levitating ecstasy takes us away from our even holier duty to live in reality and learn to govern a nation and ourselves. 

Tova Leibovic-Douglas
Rabbi, spiritual counselor and educator 

When we recall the moments that touch our hearts, we often think about a significant miracle in our lives such as the birth of a child, the moment the adoption paperwork comes through, coming out to a family member, a conversion and mikveh experience or the moment a medical professional saves a loved one. These are memories embedded in us and, in some ways, forge the resiliency needed in life. They are potent seeds of hope. 

This verse is not talking about such miracles. It is not the verse of the Red Sea parting or the Ten Plagues or the Ten Commandments, but rather a reminder that even in the wilderness, even in some of our harshest moments, there are small miracles. There are times in our lives and in the collective experience, like the one of our day, which may feel impossible or unstable, as if we are in the wilderness. Yes, even in such moments, tiny everyday miracles are present. 

Rosh Hashanah swiftly approaches, and I wonder what it looks like to lower our expectations. Instead of looking for grandeur such as the parting of the sea, we can also focus on the smaller miraculous moments in our wilderness. We acknowledge that we don’t have precisely what we used to have or what we want, but we do have some version of what we need. This task is a timeless one, but one that seems to call us at this moment. It is time to see the small miracles. 

Rabbi Miriam Hamrell 
Ahavat Torah LA 

What was Moses insinuating? Were the People of Israel not aware? Did they not understand or appreciate their daily sustainable, awe-inspiring miracles God had done for them for 40 years? Is it possible that they forgot to be grateful and no longer rejoiced in their daily miracles? 

One of the answers is, yes, they were taking their daily miracles for granted, just like many of us. In Talmud, Berakhot 58a, we find Ben Zoma questioning, “How many labors Adam carried out before he obtained bread to eat! He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground and sifted, he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me.” 

How often before we take a bite of bread into our mouths, do we think about the many laboring hands that touched that piece of bread? I think the art of gratitude is somewhat lost on us, the generation of instant gratification. Our tradition teaches us that we ought to be able to find 100 opportunities a day to thank God for a something. Is it our good health, a roof over our heads, food on our tables, clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet, breaths that we are able to take? Which daily sustainable, awe-inspiring miracles, are we not grateful for? 

May we live grateful lives and find 100 opportunities a day to thank God for our miracles. Amen.

Rabbi David Block
Associate head of school, Shalhevet High School 

What does it take to know God? 

From these verses alone, the answer seems clear: the desert miracles. But these verses come in the middle of a sentence; their true power comes when they’re seen in context. 

Right beforehand, God says that the people already had seen all of His great miracles in Egypt, and that should have been enough to create knowledge of God. And, yet, it didn’t work. The verses create a contrast: The miracles in the desert accomplished what the miracles in Egypt were meant to do. The question is: What’s the difference between the plagues in Egypt and the sustenance in the desert? Don’t they both incontrovertibly point to the Divine? 

Israel never struggled with the existence or omnipotence of God. But they may have wondered whether God cared for them personally. Yes, God is a God of wonders, of power. But is God also a God of love, of intimacy, of care? The wonders of Egypt can teach one to know of God but not to know God. To see God, to feel God. For that, the people would need to see God’s personal, consistent love. 

What’s amazing is that before the desert miracles, God takes responsibility for their lack of faith: God never gave them the tools (the heart, the eyes, the ears) with which to know God — until now (29:3)! It’s a relationship. Only after God showed that God would live with us could we be expected to live with God. 

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