In the process of “going and coming” and of finding balance, Parashat Ki Tavo can be hard to read. So much so that a major part of it is customarily read by many in whisper.
It starts all nice with a beautiful detailed account of how we bring the bikurim, first fruits, a reading which is included, still, every year, in the Passover Haggadah as the story of where we’ve come from, where we’re going to and what are we doing here.
But then, this gives way to the notorious “Blessings and Curses”, perhaps better translated as “consequences” – what will happen if we listen and, alternatively, what if we don’t. Are those two possibly connected?
The process of bringing the first fruit to the priest in the Temple is especially hard to understand today maybe because we live in such a “fast-food”, fast-anything culture, where everything must happen immediately if not sooner (‘what! It’s been 20 seconds and no answer to my text?!’).
But in order to bring the first fruit…. It wasn’t even enough to see that first fig beginning to ripen on the tree, when it was marked with a special ribbon, then guarded throughout the season, making sure it keeps growing nicely, then picked, wrapped safely, then put in the basket and carried all the way – with everything that can happen along the journey – to Jerusalem, just to say, Look! This is It! This is the fruit of my partnership with the amazing, endless, wonderful gifts G-d gave me and family!
Not only could this long, arduous process been disrupted at any moment, but it had to start much earlier, with preparing the soil, planting the tree, caring for it. Or, caring for the animals, feeding them, taking them out, cleaning after them, day in and day out; season in and season out. At any moment we can begin to think, ‘oh look at me and what I’ve done!! At any moment, we can begin to think, ‘oh, this will never work; I’m worthless!’
And the Torah, again and again wants to remind us: we’re not everything, we’re not nothing. Most of all, we are not alone but a part of.
What’s our part? According to the Kabbalists, there is bounty coming to the world all the time, just good stuff pouring down from the heavens, but without a “something” on earth to catch it, it flows on. There needs to be a vessel to collect it, like a reservoir for rain and flood water. We are that reservoir; we are that vessel. It is perhaps no coincidence that we are made of “dirt”, of the material most used for pottery. We can hold. We can sustain. We can collect, then share.
Kids in Israel sometimes say (or used to say?) שברו את הכלים ולא משחקים – “the vesses are broken and we can’t play”. I used to think of it as just a silly kids’ rhyme. Some say it’s about the proximity between כלים (kelim, vessels) and כללים (klallim, rules) but then, I realized, that maybe it says that when our vessel is cracked or broken, for any reason, we can’t “play”, we can’t participate. Because, after all, we do not and cannot create or bring this bounty from scratch; that’s not on us. But we can bring the vessel to hold it and give it on.
And our “vessel” needs prep. There are times when we’re grumpy or haughty; too much or too little of anything and we can’t “be”; We might think, ‘ah, no worries, I’ll just be “ready” when I need to without all this work on the way’, but it’s not possible, no more then it’s possible to jump out of bed with a beautiful fig or sheep and run to the Temple. Not unless we did all the necessary steps long beforehand. Even then, there is no guarantee, but without it, so much less.
It is customary to read Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashana, during this month of Elul which is intended for reflection because Ki Tavo can help us think back about where we’ve done well, where we’ve erred, and how to proceed in our relationships with others and with G-d. According to the Torah, blessings and curses don’t just happen randomly. They are like signs along the way for us, how to maximize or minimize our chances.
The Torah includes another strange statement in this week’s reading: ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך ה’ אלוהיך… then you will be happy with all the good that Hashem your G-d has given you (Deuteronomy 26:11). Is that a mitzvah or a simple statement of facts? Yes. And… Maybe it’s an expression of how we feel in those moments when we just “are”, in what some now call “flow”, moments of pure simcha, joy, moving about knowing where we’ve come from, where we’re going to and what we’re here to do.