Parashat Ki Tavo

Leo Baeck College Sermon
Ki Tavo
Esther Hugenholtz

The Fruits of Our Joy

It’s easy for Jews to feel overwhelmed during the month of Elul, especially for us ‘professional Jews’. We fret about how many sermons we still have to research and write, we stress over the amount of liturgy we have to practice and we agonise over our own feelings of inadequacy when it comes to facilitating our own ‘teshuvah’ during this time of good deeds and introspection.

There is a measure of irony in this month of Elul-induced angst. It seems that the more we throw ourselves into the process of creating meaning for others, the higher the risk is that we neglect to create meaning for ourselves. We feel unbalanced. Between the heftiness of crafting a d’rasha with the necessary gravitas and managing the logistical challenges of the High Holy Days, we lose sight of what is most important: existential joy.

This week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, opens with an unfolding consciousness of existential joy. ‘...ki tavo el ha’aretz asher Hashem Eloheichah noten lecha nachalah’, the Torah prefaces, ‘...when you come to the land that the Eternal your God has given you as an inheritance’ (Deut. 26:1). It is this point of arrival that simultaneously launches into the parashah’s fascinating study of a profound notion of joy. When the Israelites arrive at the Promised Land, after an arduous desert journey filled with epic challenges, they are to offer their first fruits and give thanks to God. And then, they are challenged to do something remarkable. They are instructed to recall both their humble origins and their memories of oppression. ‘Arami oved avi, vayered mitzrayimah...’ – ‘My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt’ (Deut. 26:5).

This mysterious statement does not only confront them with their past but also shapes their identity for the future. In short, this is much more of an existential statement than it is a factual one. Only after they have faced their vulnerabilities can they progress to rejoicing. ‘V’samachta bechol hatov asher natan lecha Adonai eloheichah’ – ‘and you shall rejoice in all the goodness that the Eternal your God has given you’. (Deut. 26:11) This, then, becomes a deeper and truer joy. Not frivolous or fleeting but a strong sense of belonging and contentment, linked to fulfilling an ethical imperative – as the text goes on to say that one must rejoice not only with one’s immediate loved ones but also with the stranger and dispossessed. Only then can we come to our ‘eretz zavat chalav u’davash’, our land flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 26:9).

The ending of the wilderness journey marks the beginning of another journey into the heart of the Promised Land, of building a home. Of course, this timely narrative can be applied to our own lives. We, too, are on a journey. We traverse the spirals of calendar and lifecycle and arrive in the last month of Elul before the narrative comes to a close, we are held accountable to our deeds and are renewed again. Our deeds are our ‘nachalah’, inheritance and it is their consequence that shapes the land of our soul. If we have the bravery to admit that we too, are sometimes lonely sojourners, and wanderers, then true transformative joy can set in.

Create a breach in time and space for yourselves, even if it is only a little moment. Dwell on the journey that you have completed over this year of 5771 and anticipate the travels to come.
Contemplate your thoughts, jot down a few words. Go for a walk. Soak up the sun and relish the rain. Be with humankind and seek out God. Be curious about yourself and question.

In what ways have you been a stranger? To others or yourself? And what would you like your inheritance to be? What sweet fruits of your labour can you bring as an offering? But most importantly: where is it that you find joy? The High Holy Days are not only days of great solemnity but also of passionate happiness, of trusting in love and forgiveness, in God, community and ultimately in yourselves. ‘V’samachta bechol tov’. Take a deep breath and ‘enjoy the ride’!

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