“When you enter the land that YHVH, your God, is giving you as a heritage …” (Deuteronomy 26:1).
Parashat Ki Tavo comes with the full moon of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year. Moses addresses the gathered people, Ivrim (Hebrew people), on the Plains of Moab as they are about to cross into the Promised Land. His instructions regarding their behavior once they enter the land come as we are preparing to enter 5774. Like its moon, the parasha shines an intense light on our preparatory work for the High Holy Days.
Early in the parasha, Moses gives the familiar précis of Hebrew history and God’s grace that is part of the Passover seder liturgy: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers … and became a great and populous nation.” From the depths of oppression, the Ivrim cried out and were liberated and brought to the land of abundance by God’s outstretched hand (Deuteronomy 26:5-10). Moses instructs the people that they are to present their offerings of this new land’s first fruits in a basket and then recite the above story.
The ritual accompaniment of this thanksgiving offering with the recitation of the story gives us a sense of the mutuality at the core of the sacrificial system. God gives to us (in this case, deliverance from slavery and deliverance to the Promised Land) and the Ivrim show thanks by bringing the first fruits and reciting the story that prompted their expression of gratitude. While a thanksgiving offering differs from an atonement offering, this example of reciprocity in the relationship between God and the Ivrim provides an opening for asking what we might bring as an atonement gift for the High Holy Days and what the gift was in response.
For the High Holy Days, it is a personal story. With the diminishing moonlight following Elul’s full moon, I squint my eyes to examine my behavior of the past year and begin envisioning the path I will take in 5774 to realign myself with the journey to walk in the ways of YHVH that is mandated in Ki Tavo. And while many of the instructions given in this parasha may be archaic and foreign to my sensibilities, the message regarding the need to adhere to a path of righteousness is clear.
Ki Tavo is replete with rules for the behavior of the Ivrim. It details the rewards that come with adherence to the delineated code and the terrible consequences when the rules are violated. The rewards are great. But, oh, the horror of the punishments: “You will go back to Egypt and try to sell yourself and your wife as slaves, and none will buy” (Deuteronomy 28:68). So harsh are the warnings that they are often read in a low voice when chanted in synagogues.
As I try to make these admonitions relevant, I find myself thinking of the name Ivri, which means “boundary crosser.” Most often we understand this as a reference to the fact that we were nomadic people, like that wandering Aramean who was our father. But I think the term has deeper significance. It refers not just to our ancestral tribe, but to a fact about the general human condition: Human beings cannot help but stray from the prescribed path. It is in our nature. The blueprint for our behavior, told elsewhere in Deuteronomy, is the prescribed path of “walking in God’s ways.” But we can only fulfill this commandment in limited ways — not because we are evil, but because we are human. We are Ivrim, boundary crossers. It is just who we are. Try as we might, it is hard to stay within the lines.
So each year at this time, as we prepare for the New Year, we review just how far we have strayed from the path and ask ourselves what we must do to return. And in the word most connected with this season, we find our “answer,” our “return.” These two words are far more accurate translations of the word teshuvah than its customary translation of “repentance.” Teshuvah was a gift reserved for us before our very creation. It is the gracious response given in anticipation that we would be human, Ivrim, boundary crossers.
Every day in the morning liturgy we recite the line, “B’chol yom tamid ma’aseh bereshit” (“On every day, always, creation is renewed”). Every day, we have the opportunity to return to the intention of our holy walk in God’s ways and start again. The gift of the New Year is this gift of teshuvah. And our response is to make offerings of tefilah — prayer — and tzedakah — the good work that accompanies actions when we live within the boundaries.
May you find proper alignment and direction as you cross over into the New Year.
Rabbi Anne Brener is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is professor of ritual and human development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and serves as a bereavement chaplain at Skirball Hospice. The author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights Publishing), she assists institutions in creating caring communities.