Thursday, September 07, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Ki Tavo (Yo Papa was an Aramean!)

I don't have too much time to write this week, but I want to mention an important part of the portion: Arami Oved Avi

First is a very famous quote that you may recognize from the Passover Seder as the most passed over (hence the name of the holiday?) section of the Haggadah. The Haggadah analyzes, ad nauseam, the quote, "Arami Oved Avi", which can either translate as "A wandering Aramean was my father" or "A wandering Aramean sought to destroy my father". It leads us through a very quick account of what has happened from the middle of the book of Genesis to the future in Temple times. My father, your father, our father, Jacob was trying to flee Laban who wanted to kill him. He went down to Egypt with a small population when he found out his son Joseph was alive, they increased and multiplied to an extremely large number, we were enslaved and embittered by the Egyptians, wse got out through the mighty deeds of God. It then goes on to mention about the good land God gave to me and that the produce was good. Notice that the text is written in the first person singular. This is in striking contrast to the liturgy of the High Holidays which we enter where everything is written in the first person plural. In the case of the Days Of Awe, we acknowledge that we are all in this together. The script that we are given here, however, is quite personal and each and every one must take it as personal and written about them. God has made this story play out and brought you to the land and gave you these great things, it was all for you, and therefore you personally should thank God.

Although this text is within the Passover canon, it rightfully belongs in that of Shavuot, the Festival of the First Fruits, when the Jews of Israel would bring the first and best of their newly-harvested crop to the Temple as a sacrifice to God and Priest. This really is a script giving them stage directions and telling them exactly what to say. Last year at camp I had my fifth grade students bring the favorite thing they brought to camp with them, not telling them why. It turns out we were going to reinact this scene and find out what it felt like to part with the thing that was most important to you (kind of like the fourth Harry Potter, the second task). I obviously gave it all back to them, but we really got a sense of what was going through the mind of a farmer as he gave up his favorite sheep.

One of the beautiful parts of this section is that the priest is actually supposed to recite this with the petitioner following along. It doesn't matter if this pilgrim is the most well-trained sage or the simplest and most naïve peasant, everyone must follow along with the Priest. This has manifested itself in modern times with the Priestly Blessing and Sheva Brachot. When the Priests go up to bless the congregation, they repeat word-for-word the fifteen-word blessing after the Shaliach Tzibur, the prayer leader. Nobody should be embarassed they have not memorized these fifteen vital words. Remember, they have their hands raised and eyes unfocused and repeat each word that the Sha"tz is reading from the siddur. In the wedding ceremony, the celebrant recites all the blessings. These prayers should technically be recited by the groom. Obviously if someone is leading a prayer service in Judaism, they are supposed to be skilled in this art. Anyone, even the most untrained davener, can stand under the chupah to get married. Out of respect for the untrained and unskilled person, even the brightest Rabbi who gets married is not allowed to say his own blessings under the chupah. Judaism demands that we maintain the dignity of all people; embarrassment is akin to murder according to Jewish law, if you shame someone it is as if you have killed them. This teaches us a lot about human dignity and Judaism's beautiful decency.

Another quick thing I wanted to mention, and it is literally quick because it is the fastest (and quietest) thing read in the entire Torah. In Megilat Esther, there are certain phrases and clauses (I bring this particular scroll up because I have a lot of experience with it) that are read in a more raised voice which I also will read more slowly as sort of an exclamation point, these are glorious verses and we want to highlight them. On the other hand, we have something known as the Tochecha, "The Admonition" or "The Curses" which appear in this Torah portion. They comprise the longest aliyah in the entire Torah which weighs in at a whopping 62 verses. It takes a really skilled wizard... uh... Torah reader (sorry, still on the Harry Potter) to properly read this. You read it double-time and just loud enough that everyone hears it. Nobody really wants to hear God saying that "you will eat your children and then die, not necessarilly in that order" (or something like that) and we really don't want it to come to fruition. This is one of two sections of the Torah which are called the Tochecha, but the other, the final pasasha of Leviticus, Bechukotai, is only half the size. These two are gruesome though; after a small handful of verses of blessing (if you do right in God's Eyes) you have a huge chunk of punishment of evil. It's a lot harder to be good than to be bad, so it is interesting the unbalance of reward to punishment. As Dumbledore said to Harry in #4 (sorry, last Potter reference... for now...), "dangerous times are ahead. We must choose between what is right and what is easy." So true, Rabbi Dumbledore, so true...
In the coming Torah portions we will actually be confronted with the choice between life and death, good and evil. We are implored to choose life. And remember that Rosh Hashannah is looming, and we must listen to Rabbi Dumbledore's wonderful High Holiday sermon, choose right, choose life.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova.

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