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Parshat Ki Tavo
O taste and see….
– Psalms (34:8)
The last several weekly readings have engaged our senses. There was the sense of sight (“See, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse”; the good and life, the bad and death), the sense of hearing (“And it shall be because you listen to these ordinances” ), and the sense of mind – our whole mode of perception and interpretation (“Judges and officers shall you appoint within all your gates,” which are the “gates” of perception).
This week’s Torah portion is fundamentally about remembering. Now, says Moses, challenging the evidence of our senses, “You have seen everything that God did before your eyes in Egypt, to Pharaoh and his servants and to all his land; the great trials that your eyes beheld, the great signs and wonders. But God did not give you a mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this day” (Deut. 29:1–3). What does this mean?
Remember that the people to whom Moses is speaking are primarily not those who experienced the slavery and redemption of Egypt, not those who stood and received the Torah at Mount Sinai. When Moses says, “You did not eat bread, and you did not drink wine…so that you should know that I am the Lord your God” (29:5), what message does this actually convey? Moses is speaking largely to a generation raised on manna, the food that rained down from heaven. To them, it was their daily bread, not something miraculous.
As the Israelites prepare to enter the Land, their relationship to food becomes a symbol of the transition to peoplehood.
Last week’s reading ended with an admonition to remember, and not to forget, the wickedness of Israel’s eternal enemy the Amalekites (25:17–19). This week’s reading opens with a formula and a ritual practice that reinforces the national act of remembering. In the retelling of the exodus from Egypt, and in the obligation to bring the offering of the firstfruits in annual pilgrimage, the people are told explicitly how to perform the act of remembrance. This lies at the core of how religion binds the individual and the society through shared history and shared values. The fact of remembering is not sufficient without the act of remembering.
This week’s reading also contains an extended passage (the entire, long chapter 28) containing an extensive list of the consequences that will follow when the Jewish nation fails to follow God’s word. These are known in the rabbinic literature as passages of rebuke, though in English the word “rebuke” means to harshly criticize someone who has done something inexcusable. In the passages of rebuke voiced by Moses – mostly in Deuteronomy – the rebuke is forward-looking. Moses says, I know that once I am no longer here to keep you on the straight and narrow, you will go off the right path. You will run after foreign gods, you will run after the enjoyments and amusements of the foreign societies among which you live. You will run to pleasures of the flesh. You will not end by rejecting God, says Moses. It is far worse, for you will begin by rejecting God – and once you have done so, your descent and destruction are assured.
The rebuke contains the image of us returning to Egypt in despair. We are told that God will bring back upon us our own experience of suffering in Egypt (28:60), which is the suffering of forgetting. In Egypt we forgot who we were, we forgot our relationship with God. Ultimately, our devastation and forgetting were so complete that we could be redeemed only when God stepped in.
We are to remember. That may be the final and fundamental message that Moses leaves us with before closing his narrative. Remember. Just this much: Always remember.
Here, on the eve of entering the Promised Land, few among the Israelites remember Egypt. The rest were all born in the wilderness and raised on manna.
The first taste of milk on the tongue of the newborn creates a lifelong bond. The milk that feeds us in our first days and months also binds us forever to our caregivers – in Moses’ case, it was his own mother. Yet as time passes, we become aware of the world expanding around us, we begin to yearn for other experiences.
I remember my own infant son, who had his first taste of solid food at the age of six months; the urgency with which he strained toward the spoon, the trembling expectation as his tongue reached for his first taste of applesauce. The blissful aftermath as he lay back and meditatively reflected on the experience of devouring a mash made of half a baked apple.
When Moses commands the people to bring the firstfruits as an offering to God, he is not only referring to the first of the annual crop. Taking the Torah’s imagery to its poetic next step, the fruits the people taste in Israel will be the very first fruits they bring into the world – perhaps the first actual fruits that many Israelites have ever tasted. (There is disagreement among the rabbis as to when exactly the manna ceased. Exodus 16:35 says the manna fell until the people reached the border of the land of Canaan.) Whatever other food sources the Israelites drew on during their years of wandering, it is clear that, in the wilderness, the manna was mother’s milk to them. Now, like a child about to experience new tastes, new textures – about to experience directly what they came to know dimly as the smells and colors of food – they tremble with excitement. They can’t wait to taste these fruits, to make them part of their own experience.
Every wisdom tradition knows the danger of becoming enamored of the spiritual experience. That is why they all emphasize practice. And Moses also warns us against the danger of spiritual addiction.
Do not take the taste of the fruit, the experience of tasting these foods for the first time, to be the norm. A spiritual life doesn’t come in individual spiritual experiences, but in maintaining a connection to the divine in this world – even in the midst of our most mundane acts. We experience a set of feelings with the performance of an act. Once, and once only, do we have the flood of uplifting, expanding, and mind-altering sensations that come with a new spiritual experience. But we are human, and we expect to be able to experience the same set of feelings and sensations. The same elation. The same expansiveness. And when we do not, we believe there is something wrong with us. Or perhaps that the experience itself is not genuine, or that there is something flawed in the way the experience is taught to us.
Either we are at fault, or our practice is at fault, or our teacher is at fault. Or God is at fault.
Moses says, this is the way most people think. The Torah is not an experience. It is life. The laws and practices are a way to enter into dialogue with God, speaking God’s own language. Prayer is not an experience; it is the way to isolate ourselves with our own selves, to enfold ourselves in God as in an embrace. To give ourselves over to God’s will and to God’s care. It can be exhilarating; and like all true acts of intimacy, it should also be frightening.
Says Moses, you have seen, but you have not understood. Now, going forward, you must strive to understand, persevering even when you do not comprehend. And understanding comes from remembering our place in the cosmos. From remembering our relationship with God. From remembering the primacy of Torah, especially in the midst of spiritual confusion. When our own spiritual strivings come up short, there is the Practice, handed down to us from Sinai, and standing us in good stead today.
Spiritual practice is like the athlete’s daily workout: it’s not the game, but you can’t step onto the playing field without it. Our relationship with God is not made up of an unending series of spiritual revelations. Rather, we need to devote ourselves to the practice for its own sake. Do your job, says Moses. Don’t worry about God – God will do God’s part without your help.
Give up your experiences. Make of them, not gifts for yourselves, but gifts for God. If we take the fruits and eat them ourselves, what will happen when we are disappointed by the taste? When it doesn’t meet our expectations? Is that not when we challenge God? Is that not when we say: God, you led me to have an expectation, and You are responsible to me for making up my disappointment?
The expectation of reward is its own greatest punishment.
Life is not about us. Or rather, it is about us, but not only about us. It is about us, and our ongoing relationship with God. Remember, Moses is saying – and do not forget. Like the athlete on the practice field, like the person seeking growth who goes dutifully to his therapy session, like the meditator who returns to his silent cushion every day at the appointed time, our spiritual growth comes not from our spiritual experiences but from sticking to the basics. Repeating the formulas, performing the actions. Practice. Sometimes we feel uplifted, sometimes our actions will inspire others to feel uplifted. Sometimes we will feel that we have done everything we could, and to no avail.
When Moses says, “God did not give you the heart to know until this day,” he is giving his people a tremendous blessing and compliment – and a challenge.
Now, as they are about to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites finally begin to form an understanding of what came before. This is the transformation which Moses – and dare we say God, too? – so devoutly wished for. A new generation, one which never experienced the miracles, the signs and wonders, the physical Presence of God at the giving of the Torah at Sinai, this new generation of Israel now fully embraces their role as the inheritors of all this cosmic history.
Perhaps they will still not understand it; indeed, never with the comprehension of those who actually lived it. Perhaps they will not always get it right. They will slip, they will become frustrated. At times they will angrily reject what they have come to embrace here today. But as it is said in Ethics of the Fathers, “It is not given to you to finish the work; but neither are you free to desist from striving” (2:16).
You have lived long enough in exile, says Moses. Now, he urges the people, begin the process of redemption, which rests upon a lifelong process of remembering who you are.
God places each one of us here for a unique reason. Our lives in the world are so overwhelming that it is impossible for us not to forget who we are, why we are here. The Midrash recounts that an angel comes to the womb and teaches the unborn infant the entire Torah. Then, at the moment of birth, the angel strikes – or perhaps kisses – us on the mouth and we forget everything. The philtrum – the vertical cleft running from the upper lip to the nose – is the mark of the angel’s kiss. The crease of our forgetfulness.
Hidden in this fanciful image is the underlying message that our individual truth is still there, hidden away. Right on the tip of our tongue, as it were – hanging on our lip, awaiting the breath of self-awareness. Our work in the world is to rediscover who we are.
We need to stay the course as we continue our daily grind in the confusion of the physical world, the day-to-day of making money and building a business or a career – all of which is important. And at the same time, our daily activities can become a form of exile of the soul, because it is so difficult to keep both our physical and our spiritual necessities before our eyes at all times, to maintain balance.
Hold fast to your inner core of truth. Continue the steady work of remembering, the lifelong practice of becoming the person God intends you to be.
Let your personal redemption begin.
Yours for a better world.