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Parashat Ki Tavo 5778

August 30, 2018

A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tavo
by Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

One of the sublime joys of studying at AJR is experiencing tefillah in its community – especially at Retreat. Being in a room with 70 or 80 people, each of whom is, in some way, expert at Jewish prayer, is wondrous. And with a leader who is seeking – through her choice of prayers, songs, and niggunim – to impress upon her congregants a particular insight or perspective on our liturgy, you have an experience that can meet the high expectations for kavanah, for the intentionality that our rabbis have set for us as our goal in communicating with the Holy One.

I came to AJR with a very limited and narrow perspective on prayer. AJR broadened that perspective to my horizons, and then beyond them. It did so by fulfilling the words of Psalm 100: “Serve the Lord in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.” Where I once saw prayer as an obligation to serve God, I learned to see it as an opportunity to serve God with gladness and shouts of joy. By bringing joy into my personal worship I gave myself the desire to make that worship grow.

If Psalm 100 makes serving God with joy seem like an ideal, our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, makes it seem like a prerequisite: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and in gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve – in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking in everything – the enemies whom the Lord let loose against you.” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48) Service alone seems insufficient. To serve without joy and gladness is to belittle the blessings God showers upon us.

Judaism requires that we bring so much to our service to God: knowledge of a foreign language, mastery in our use of gestures and ritual objects, a sense of history and even a familiarity with abstract concepts like monotheism. More than all of that, it requires kavanah. Where does that kavanah, that intentionality, come from? A sense of obligation or gratitude, or need or thanks?

I read these verses as requiring that kavanah to come from our gladness and our joy. We are glad because God’s covenant imbues our lives, our actions, our choices with a sense of purpose and responsibility.  We shun the angst of the existentialist who sees life as absurd. Instead, we trust that the way we live matters – not just to ourselves, but to those we love, those we touch, and to God. And we are joyous because we live our lives conscious of the many blessings that surround us – spending at least these prayerful moments celebrating all the things that are right in our lives.

As leaders of Jewish communities, as teachers to our own children and those of others, I believe we need to show them this kavanah of gladness and joy. I believe that, in the eyes of those who look up to us as role models, our competency with the language, our fluency with the gestures, our mastery of the concepts must all be seen in the service of our gladness, our joy and, ultimately, our love.

Too many of our students are like those spoken of in the second verse cited above – hungry for something transcendent, thirsty for that which will refresh their souls, naked to a world that is increasingly nasty and capricious, and lacking in everything that can give them a sense of scale and significance in their lives.  Judaism can give them all of that. We know because it gives all of that to us and in doing so, it gladdens us and makes us shout for joy. Let others see us so gladdened. Let them hear us shout for joy.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT