Friday, September 4, 2009

Ki Tavo - The Dignity of Gifts

Parshat Ki Tavo
The Dignity of Gifts

Please share your thoughts, comments, arguments, and questions!

           This week, Torat Moshe is figuring to cover gifts, human dignity, Pesach, God, and the High Holidays all in one short email. Feel free to let us know how we do.
            The beginning of the parshah is unusual - it’s one of the few places in the Torah where a formula for what we’re supposed to say is commanded - Torah has much about what it asks us to do, but rarely a ritualized speech. To summarize briefly, when you get into the land of Israel, in the springtime, take the first of your fruits, put them in a basket, take them to the Temple as an offering, and then recite the story of our people (see the text below).
            This speech, starting in Hebrew as arami oved avi - my ancestor was a homeless Aramaean - is a famous piece of Torah. It is the backbone of the Passover Haggadah, though you may not recognize it because the Haggadah version is broken into pieces and interspersed with Rabbinic commentary. But because of the text’s straightforward, powerful telling of our story in a way that builds into gratitude, the Rabbis made it the heart of the telling of the Passover story.
            What’s intriguing is the question of what this basket of first fruit is: what, exactly is the message of this ritual? A verse from the Prophet Hoshea sheds some light. Hoshea, in the midst of a society whose very fabric is coming apart, describes this as one of the consequences of not being able to recover a moral social structure:

They will not make wine offerings to the God, nor will those offerings be pleasing. Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners  - all that eat of them will become unclean, for all their food will be for themselves; none of it will come into the House of God. (Hoshea 9:4)

           The point is this: the ability to bring gifts, to God in this case, is a sign of sufficiency.  It is the perfect ritual for Passover because gift giving is an expression of personal and economic dignity – the statement that I have enough to give to others, that I am grateful for my surfeit. This is precisely what was denied to us in Egypt, where nothing was our own. The inability to give gifts is a sign of degradation and hardship.
             The end of a year that has rocked our sense of stability is right around the corner, together with the beginning of the year to come. But the gift of having our lives shaken up is that much of the nonsense that is a piece of all of us falls away as well. As a blessing and a challenge, let us find the ways in which are sufficient, in which we have more than enough, even in the midst of economic hardship, and give of them as much as we are able.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you as a heritage, occupying and settling it, you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that God your Lord is giving you. You must place it in a basket, and go to the site that God will choose as the place associated with His name. There you shall go to the priest officiating at the time, and say to him, 'Today I am affirming to God your Lord that I have come to the land that God swore to our fathers to give us.' The priest shall then take the basket from your hand and place it before the altar of God your Lord. You shall then make the following declaration before God your Lord:
'My ancestor was a homeless Aramaean. He went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, but it was there that he became a great, powerful, and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery on us.
We cried out to God, Lord of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor, and our distress. God then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm with great visions and with signs and miracles. He brought us to this area, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that God has given me.'
Deuteronomy 26


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