Ki Tavo 5776 - 9/23/2016
Post date: Sep 22, 2016 5:51:16 AM
Parshat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, is the 50th in our annual cycle of Torah readings. Much of chapters 27 and 28 is devoted to curses, plagues, sicknesses, and smiting. The negative overtones of this week’s parsha mirror the beginning of the season of repentance. Though S’lichot and Yom Kippur are not ‘sad’ holidays per se (I usually teach kids that they are ‘serious’ or solemn, while some great scholars consider Yom Kippur to be the happiest day of the year), there are some undoubtedly fear inspiring passages in the high holiday liturgy. Sin and grave consequence for it pervade our machzorim, which can be a challenging way to begin a new year and new season.
Similarly, the Israelites are about to begin a new journey into the Land of Israel as the Torah comes to a close. It is a dire set of warnings and admonishments that greets them here in Ki Tavo just as they are making this transition. At the beginning of Devarim chapter 27 is a different list – a list of positive commandments. These commandments are to set up great stones and plaster them as soon as the Israelites cross the Jordan River, to write the words of Torah on those stones, to set up a stone altar to God, to give burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, and to eat and rejoice.*
After these commandments, passuk (verse) 9 says, “And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying: 'Keep silent, and hear, O Israel; this day you shall become a people to the LORD your God.” What first struck me about this passuk is its initial similarity to the Shema – Hear O Israel. However, this passuk contains a very different word – in Hebrew haskeit (הסכת). This word is used rarely in the Bible – only 3 times. It means to pay attention, to keep silent, and to listen. These are not necessarily independent meanings, but rather give the sense that this word in biblical Hebrew relates to thoughtful, attentive silence.**
Reading this passuk reminded me of the bedtime Shema ritual from a summer camp I worked at several years ago. It was a song, taken from the full text of the bedtime Shema and adapted to the Reform movement’s theology and ideology. This song had the distinct power of taking a group of rambunctious young adolescents and creating a calm, peaceful space before it was time to sleep. It was a time where all we asked of them was to be attentive, be quiet, and to listen.
Seeing this long list of rituals that the Israelites are to do when they cross the Jordan River makes me wonder if all the pomp and circumstance is really a way to compel the people to be quietly attentive to the incredible transition that is taking place.
Perhaps that is even the function of all of the sin and suffering liturgy on the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays) – not necessarily the words themselves, but the rituals that go along with them allow us to stop, to be quiet, and to attentively listen.
On the high holidays, there are so many people to whom we listen – setting aside the obvious clergy members, we listen to our friends and family as they ask and offer forgiveness, we listen to the memories of those who have passed on Yizkor, and we listen to ourselves – the regretted choices, broken promises, and hopes for a brighter future.
Perhaps this year, we can make an extra effort – instead of just hearing ourselves say the words – to really listen. To be silent and attentive, and to take in the full context of what others say to us, and what we say to ourselves.
* According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, rejoicing is at the heart of Jewish practice. In fact, the curses in chapter 28 are predicated not on doing evil, but merely on not serving God “with joy and gladness of heart for the abundance of all things” (28:47). It is awesome that our basic Jewish Law commands us, as Bobby McFerrin put it, to Be Happy.
** From Sam: While הסכת (haskeit) may be used used infrequently in the Torah, its Arabic cognate "iskut", roughly meaning "shut up", is something I heard frequently growing up.