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Parashat Ki Tavo 5780

September 4, 2020


A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tavo
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

In the megahit musical Hamilton, there is a song with the repeated line, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrMkdZtqiVI). The way that we know who we are and where we come from is through stories. Sometimes we call them myths; sometimes we call them history. There’s more overlap between those two than we’d like to admit. It is impossible to include every detail of something that’s happened in a story, so every single time we tell a story, we make choices about what to put in and what to leave out. And indeed, who tells your story can determine whether you are hero or villain, victim or victor—in fact, whether you are remembered at all.

Sometimes stories are codified in an attempt to shape identity, to tie everyone into a community through agreement on a shared story. Politicians use stories in this way sometimes, to try to get people to identify with a certain vision of the nation. Religions use stories like this too. The Exodus is a shared story that has been core to identity not only for Jews, but historically for others as well, include the Founding Fathers of the United States of America.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Exodus is incorporated into a formula to be repeated by the Israelites at a specific time. Moses instructs them that when they are living in the Promised Land, they are to bring a sacrifice of the first fruits of the harvest at Passover time. Each household is to go before the High Priest with the sacrifice and recite this collective story:

“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 Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by and outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me (Deut. 26:5-10).”

This passage is probably familiar to many of you, because our rabbis later incorporated it into the Passover haggadah. To this day, Jews all over the world recite this passage every year at Passover time.

There are a number of the important elements of collective identity codified in this recitation. One is that this is a story about “us.” It’s not about ancestors (even though it is); as it says elsewhere in the Passover haggadah, we remember the Exodus as if we ourselves have come out of Egypt. Another important point is that it is God alone who is responsible for our redemption from Egypt. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Pharaoh—none of them is mentioned. A third element is that God is also the One who gave us this land, and that it is a wonderful, fertile land.

This story is not about any individual’s memory, or even really about history. It is about identity, and is a teaching tool to instill these elements of identity in everyone who recites them or hears them year after year. It is liturgy.

Not every story is codified in exactly this way, but cultures, religious groups, and families do tend to have collective stories that help them define who they are. We are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. What is the story you would tell about this time? Is it a story of people pulling together and helping each other? Is it a story of people turning against one another? It could be either—both are, have been, and will continue to be true in this time. The question is, what elements of identity do we want to teach, and what is the story we tell that will communicate who we want to be? Who do we want to make sure is present in our story, and who will be left out?

In this Jewish month of Elul, our month of introspection and preparation for the Days of Awe of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are not to ignore any part of our behavior from the past year. Once we have repented and atoned, however, we have the opportunity to carry forward the parts of our story we want to emulate in the future. It is not about erasing the past, but it is about reminding ourselves and teaching those coming after us what is valued in our group identity.

May we develop stories that encourage compassion, responsible behavior, gratitude, and justice.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.