The Torah portion Ki Tavo closes with a wonderfully disorienting perspective, as the reading cycle prepares to leave the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan, while we, as readers, prepare for the new year. Who experienced what in the desert years? Who is about to enter the Promised Land, with instructions for bringing the first fruits? And who is in the exact same spot reached each year at this point, wondering about the meaning of the journey and what chance there is for moving forward?
Abraham Joshua Heschel’s challenge to explore the “soul” of words in our prayers (see last week’s post) suggests consideration of “zakhor [remember],” which occurs several times in the portion Ki Teitzei:
Remember [zakhor] what HASHEM, your God, did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt. — Deut./Devarim 24:9
You shall not pervert the judgment of a proselyte or orphan, and you shall not take the garment of a widow as a pledge. You shall remember [v’zakharta] that you were a slave in Egypt, and HASHEM, you God, redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. — Deut./Devarim 24:17-18
Remember [zakhor] what Amelek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt….wipe out the memory [zekher and/or: zakhor] …you shall not forget! — Deut./Devarim 25:17
— all translations from Stone Chumash*
In this portion, Moses presents the People with a jumble of sentiments — from sweeping promises to dire threats — which found their way into prominent roles in our prayers. And, while biblical context often has little to do with the use the siddur makes of the bible’s language, our prayers do reflect this portion’s tangled relationship between the People, God and others.
The mighty kings Og and Sihon — mentioned in Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:4, with more detail in chapter 3 — were defeated while the Israelites were still in the wilderness (Numbers/Bamidbar 20, 21). But Og and Sihon provide a direct connection to several prayers as well as to contemporary debate about what, more generally, is a “morally uplifting offering” in prayer.
The kings are also linked to midrashim on Genesis and Exodus, and, less directly, to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and an array of texts through the years. In fact, a brief exploration of Og and Sihon suggests that, as hypothesized about world population, any given Jewish text is no more than six degrees of separation from any other.
“In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.
“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”
The relationship described in the Fain/Kahal song is so strong that it imbues the very landscape with the absent loved one. A similarly powerful relationship between God and the Israelites is described in midrash on the Torah portion Masei, with its 42-stage journey recitation. (Mattot, the penultimate, and Masei, the final portion of Numbers/Bamidbar, are read together in non-leap years.) And in many ways, the siddur is designed to call prayer participants and God to remember “the park across the way,” like the stages of the desert journey, prompting renewed recognition.
The People’s time in the wilderness with God — “the love of your bridal days” (Jer. 2:2) — is coming to an end in the portion Pinchas. This is perhaps reflected in the portion’s “extras”: the additional sacrifice for Shabbat (Numbers/Bamidbar 28:9-10) and the eighth day “atzeret,” at the close of the festival of Sukkot (Numbers/Bamidbar 29:35-39). These small, ephemeral extras help imbue Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret with a sense of intimate, transitory pleasure.
Perspective — who can see what? who is MEANT to see what? and what might it all mean, anyway? — is a key element in parashat Balak. No one (except God, who is not sharing everything) has the “whole view.” And we are reminded of this even in the words which have become part of our morning prayers.
[I realize that this note is arriving in the week of parashat Pinchas, BTW. Sorry. These remarks on the prayers will, I hope, be relevant at most any time.]
“How goodly [fair, wonderful] are your tents, O Jacob,” the seer Balaam pronounces (Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5), making clear that he can see the entirety of the camp…during this attempt to curse the Israelites; during the previous attempt he could see only a “sliver” (Bamidbar/Numbers 23:13-24) The Israelites, in their own tents in the valley below, have no such vantage point.
In a similar vein, Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen note that in many synagogues, “Mah Tovu” — Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5, followed by Psalms 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14 — is recited while participants are gathering and donning their own prayer shawls. Therefore:
…people rarely have an opportunity to survey the entire scene. To someone watching is (from above) however, all those Jews would appear to have literally made their own personal tents! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob!”Continue Reading
“Then,” after safely crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians’ pursuit thwarted, “Moses and the Israelites sang…Miriam took her timbrel…and all the women followed her” (Exodus/Shemot 15:1, 20-21). “Then” — forty years later, after God tells Moses: “Assemble the people that I may give them water” (Numbers/Bamidbar 21:16) and without apparent prompting or leading — “Israel sang this song:”
Come up, O well — sing to it —
The well which the chieftans dug,
which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs.
–Numbers/Bamidbar 21:17-18 (JPS translation**)
Two of the most iconically gendered concepts in Jewish prayer — that “tenth man” for a minyan, on the one hand, and taking challah, one of three “women’s commandments,” on the other — come from this week’s portion. But gender issues can, I think, distract from other prayer ideas suggested by these same verses.
Traveling with God did not make for a smooth trip through the wilderness, and prophecy seems to have engendered more conflict — in the community at large and within the leaders’ family — than clarity in this week’s portion. The Israelites appear in deep struggle with on-going revelation and with life together in the Presence….a condition not altogether unfamiliar today: Our Torah services — shaped, in part, by three verses from this portion — reflect the struggles of Beha’alotekha [“…when you mount (lamps)”].
God’s presence among the people (Bamidbar/Numbers 10:36) directly precedes widespread complaining (Bamidbar/Numbers 11:1), which results in fire, plague and burials. Prophecy in the camp results in community strife (11:24-30) and serious trouble in the family of Miriam, Aaron and Moses (12:1-16).
Every congregational Torah reading is understood as a re-enactment of the Sinai experience. But we are also re-enacting something of this portion’s struggle as individuals, congregations and groups/movements of Judaism constantly re-interpret, and sometimes re-design, the liturgy surrounding the Torah reading in response to evolving understandings of revelation and to new realities in our communities. Continue Reading