This has to be my lucky day. It’s both the eighteenth of September and the eighteenth of Elul, that most sacred month of repentance leading up to the High Holidays. Eighteen, of course, means life, and so today Jews are doubly alive. For me in particular, this Shabbat—Shabbes, as we used to say in Brooklyn—is the 49th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, and the portion is Ki Tavo–“when you come.” It begins,
“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil…put it in a basket, and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”
Just a few lines further down is what we read every Passover: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers…but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.
“We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Little wonder I ended up with an intense love for Israel, after this was etched into my thirteen-year-old brain. Growing up in that just-post-Holocaust world, I read the uncanny curses of Ki Tavo with fear and trembling. If we break the commandments,
“The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods…yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest…You shall be in terror, night and day…”
And this: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, which will swoop down like the eagle…a ruthless nation that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy.” In my timid boy’s mind, having grown up on terrifying true stories, reading this among fugitive European Jews with the smell of the camps in their nostrils, I must have been awe-struck.
But Ki Tavo has other things in store if we keep the commandments: “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil…the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.”
And: “The Lord will put to rout before you the enemies that attack you.”
Ki tavo also means “Because you come.” Because I kept My part of the bargain—the covenant—and brought you to the promised land, you must now keep yours.
We are not supposed to pick and choose among the commandments, but “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” are mentioned three times, as in, “Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; and their rights, Ki Tavo proclaims, include the tithe that most of us give so reluctantly.
Surely, this includes the Palestinians, who need the hardest tithe of all: compromise.
The haftorah I chanted that Shabbes in 1959 is Chapter 60 of Isaiah, that great prophet of the rights of the poor, who taught that the fast God wants on the highest, holiest day of the year—that too will soon be upon us—is not an ostentatious display of piety, but an open-handed display of kindness.
Then, Isaiah says in this haftorah,
Raise your eyes and look about:
They have all gathered and come to you.
Your sons shall be brought from afar.
Your daughters like babes on shoulders.
As you behold, you will glow…
And as it says in the last passage of Ki Tavo: Eyleh divray habrit. These are the terms of the covenant.