A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Ki Tavo 5763
September 13, 2003 16 Elul 5763
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow
Liminal moments are often marked by meaningful ceremonies. A baby is welcomed into the covenant of the Jewish people through a simhat bat or brit milah ceremony. Children celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah by being called to the Torah. Marriage is marked by a ritual of kiddushin (sanctification) under the huppah. So too are such moments ritualized in the annual Jewish calendar. One need only think of the coming High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — to be reminded of the special rituals that transition us into the new year (the sounding of the shofar, tashlikh, and the ascetic laws in observance of Yom Kippur). Parashat Ki Tavo speaks of perhaps the most important transitional moment for the Jewish people — entering the Land of Israel and reminds us that when it comes to such ceremonies, one must not only look at the outer trappings of the ritual but more importantly, what that message is that the ritual conveys.
Upon entering Israel, the Torah prescribes an elaborate ritual: "you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching...There too, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God ... Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones ... And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly" (Deuteronomy 27:2—8).
What do the particular elements of this ceremony teach us as modern Jews today? First and most importantly, note that the narrative of Deuteronomy is bracketed by "the Teaching." It is as if the Torah is conveying to us that it itself is the foundation on which the future of the Israelites will be built. Torah — teaching and learning — is the life force of the Jewish people and it is only though education that a hopeful future may be forged. Secondly, the Torah commands the building of an altar, for it was through sacrifices that the biblical Israelite expressed his desire for relationship with God. Today, the sacrificial cult has been replaced by the service of the heart — prayer. Personal and communal prayer is the means by which we judge ourselves; it is the moment at which each of us stands in God's Presence and reflects on our actions. In this respect, prayer is a reflective moment which turns to evaluate the past. Third, the Deuteronomic passage teaches a curious rule. The stones of which the altar is built must be "unhewn" — that is to say, they are to be protected and to remain whole. Such a proclamation speaks to the notion of gemilut hasadim — acts of lovingkindess. How does one build a meaningful relationship with God? It is through acting in kind ways toward one's fellow. Thus, this final caveat is oriented toward the present. Here and now, each of us must engage in acts of lovingkindess — toward the goal of repairing a broken world (tikkun olam).
Perhaps it was this passage in Parashat Ki Tavo that led Shimon the Righteous to proclaim his famous dictum, "The world stands on three elements: on the Torah, on the service of God, and on acts of lovingkindness" (Pikei Avot 1:2). As we enter the New Year, it is an auspicious time to rededicate ourselves to these three aspects that sustain the world. Only by reflecting on the past and repairing the present can we hope for a future of blessing and peace.
With wishes for a good week and Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Berkowitz has dedicated this commentary to Alexandra Susi in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat.