What does it mean to have arrived? Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the exhortation to bring the first fruits of the land to the Priest when the Israelites arrive at their Promised Land. In doing so, the Israelite is charged to identify himself historically. He is to recite the famous words, Arami Oved Avi – My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt and settled there becoming a numerous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us but God brought us out of bondage to this very land from which these first fruits come. This passage is of course made famous by its inclusion in the Pesach Haggadah where it is often translated as ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’. Oved means to force someone to wander that is to be a fugitive. Only after a recognition of this history of forced wandering, can the Israelite rejoice in the new land, ‘and you shall enjoy together with the Levites and the stranger in your midst all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you.’ (Deut 26:11). Yet at the height of this celebration, the Torah invokes a new ritual; one of pronouncing blessings and curses. These terrifying invocations temper the joy of arrival while providing warning even before settlement has begun.
To arrive is to end one’s journey. For us, in this month of Elul, we are about to end the journey of this past year and arrive at the new one. Do we understand where we have come from? What has been the journey we have undertaken this past year and from what have we run away? Abraham Joshua Heschel said the task of the teacher is to show the learner the past and present in order that they can create a new future. That too is our task in this preparatory period before the High Holydays. Our arrival requires that we know who we are and what we stand for. We shall have to identify who we truly are in due course and we cannot do that if there has been no heshbon hanefesh – an accounting of our soul.
Arriving however in this spirit awakens a new realization. We have more to do, we have more to become. The task of teshuva lies before us and there is recognition of our ultimate responsibilities and the consequences of our action. Can we be aware of the blessings and curses we have imparted to others? Will we heed the warnings and judgments of this season? As we consider ourselves so do we have to consider the tasks of our community and our society. We have seen much destruction and loss of life in this past year. We have been tested by nature which has proved to be much stronger that human nature. Can humanity find a course back to a human ideal, one that is touched more deeply by the Divine in all of us?
As we arrive at this penitential season, let us bring the products of our lives and our civilizations to this holy time. Let us take responsibility for ourselves and others so that we can enjoy this world, this life, this journey that we all share.
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.