I write a weekly commentary on the parasha of the week for friends, family and my wonderful kehila in Tel Aviv, Kehilat Sinai. This is last week’s (for starters). My commentary is strictly personal. I am a lay student of Torah and I read with the goal of finding meaning in the text informed by my studies of comparative literature at Brown University (now years ago). Please feel free to comment. Wishing all readers a שנה טובה ומתוקה! Martin Sinkoff
My weekly d’var Torah 05 September : parasha Ki Tavo כי תבוא……..recognition and renewal!
The guts of this fascinating chapter are the blessings and curses (more curses than blessings) that will grace and befall the Israelites if they heed or disobey Gd’s (and Moses’s) instructions and commandments. The curses, especially, are highly graphic (ugh) and very imaginative! Here are two examples: “The LORD will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover.” (DEUT 28:27)… ugh! “And she who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and her daughter, the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears; she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want, in the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your towns.” (DEUT 28:56-57). Again, ugh!
I am not going to dwell further on either the blessings or the curses except to note that, to me, the curses reflect Moses’s great anger as he faces his death more than real curses upon the Israelites.
Rather, the chapter has two bookends which, to my reading, deserve attention. Starting at the end of the chapter we read this: “Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (DEUT 29:3). An open mind, open eyes and open ears are necessary for growth and for moving forward in life. Amen! (However, it’s easy to say and easy to write but hard to do!).
And then, at the beginning of the chapter we have this astonishing paragraph: “You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; 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.Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.” “ (DEUT 26:5-10). This passage is written as a direct command : this is what you must say!
Here is my takeaway: The memory of slavery for Jews is so distant, so abstract that it is, in many ways, meaningless. We recite this passage at Passover and it is intended to remind us of our past but, honestly, after thousands of years, how can we remember in a way that brings meaning to our lives today? Well, there is a way. And current events have shown us that way. For Black Americans, slavery is not abstract. Many of our fellow black citizens have grandparents or, more likely, great-grandparents who were, themselves, slaves in the United States of America! The memory is alive and cutting. And to a large degree, the depth of the injury has not been recognized nor acknowledged.
I am grateful to my sister, Professor Nancy Sinkoff, https://history.rutgers.edu/faculty-directory/223-sinkoff-nancy, and my brother, Jim Sinkoff, for bringing to my attention the powerful, courageous understanding of this injury by Rabbi Joachim Prinz. Prinz related the injury of slavery directly to his personal and frightening experience in Nazi Germany. He stood with Martin Luther King, Jr in Washington in 1963 at the historic March on Washington. And his powerful words, his courage, his prescience are of pressing relevance today. In the United States and here in Israel too.
Here is what Prinz said on that day: “I speak to you as an American Jew. As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea. As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience — one of the spirit and one of our history.In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity. Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe . Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America , but all of America . It must speak up and act,. from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself. Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of “liberty and justice for all.” The time, I believe, has come to work together – for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that this children’s oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.”
Read more about Rabbi Prinz here: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/the-plot-for-america And listen to him, and watch him, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cScL7MDiwZE
Shana Tova v’metukah שנת טובה ומתוקה May the new year be good and sweet and may we be renewed.