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Parshat Ki Tavo: D'var Torah by Charles Novogrodsky, September 1, 2018

04/02/2019 10:33:18 AM


Ki Tavo is a migration/immigration story. It is fitting we discuss it this shabbat after a summer when migration - and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers - are such contested features of our world.

Ki Tavo means “when you enter”. This is a famous Torah portion. It is about First Fruits, tithes and blessings and curses. In Ki Tavo Deuteronomy moves to a climax- and here as the people of Israel get ready to enter the Promised Land the reciprocal relationship between the people of Israel and the Divine is made ever more explicit. Ki Tavo furthers this relationship with obligations and consequences – the happy consequences of obeying or the consequences of not obeying.

Or we might say, the consequences of reciprocating or not reciprocating -  in our relationship with the Divine.

 The Divine has given us freedom from slavery in Egypt and a way to live and worship; in exchange we are to offer thanks and belief and ritual practice. The Torah portion ends with a long list of blessings for those who shall remain faithful to the Divine’s message. And for those who depart from Torah norms, Ki Tavo offers searing curses, the curses sometimes called the Tokhechah, The Reproach. One of these curses contains language that is considered so vulgar that it is not to be read in the synagogue – the Torah substitutes another word in Chapter 28, Deuteronomy.

Rabbi Wechsler-Azen’s commentary on Ki Tavo appears in The Women’s Torah Commentary edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. Rabbi Wechsler-Azen offers a more personal, metaphorical take on Ki Tavo. In the Rabbi’s view, Ki Tavo may be read to contain a summary of how we may best open a new chapter in life, or how we may best move to a new place, much as the People of Israel are about to do in Ki Tavo. A kind of Guide to New Chapters of Life with RECIPROCITY as the key to success.

  1. Elevate our Dreams.  Ki Tavo opens with a remarkable “First Fruits” ceremony – a beautiful ritual, THE BASKET CEREMONY. It calls to Rabbi Wechsler-Azen’s mind a “dizzying promenade filled with ardent perfume of ripened figs and grapes”. The basket of fruit and the holy words to be spoken - the beauty of our dreams; our new/first fruits.
  2. Acknowledge pain and survival of that pain. The words of the Basket ceremony in Ki Tavo long ago worked their way into the Pesach Haggadah – these are the words of our bondage and our acknowledgment of the Divine releasing us from bondage.
  3. Let generosity extend from our happiness. In Ki  Tavo the people of Israel are instructed to set aside the “10th part of their yield” every third year, the tithe, for the Levites, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow.


Rabbi Weschler-Azen punctuates the formula derived metaphorically from Ki Tavo with questions for us, in our time. What do we hold sacred in our life’s basket? How do we elevate our dreams? How can we honour what we have learned through survival? How can we celebrate and share our lives and the bounty in our lives?

In other words how can OUR reciprocal obligations to the Divine – to our neighbours, family, friends, fellow citizens – best be realized, with positive dreams, acknowledgement of pain and survival and a generous way of living?

But there’s a but.

Whoever wrote the consequences of failed reciprocity -  the curses of Ki Tavo- –  imagined some of our greatest fears. The curses of Ki Tavo outnumber the blessings, almost as if Ki Tavo knows that, often, in order to do good we must fear the consequences of not doing good.

So here it is in Ki Tavo: a deal between us and the Divine. In exchange for a sacred peoplehood, for liberation from slavery we are to reciprocate with sacred values and acts including an awareness of history, a generosity, aspirational humanity.

We want to reciprocate, we want to be generous to others, including strangers, as the Divine has commanded. But things get in the way.

Last month Stephen Miller's Uncle, David Glosser, wrote a full essay in POLITICO about his nephew who is Trump's chief immigration advisor. Stephen Miller is Jewish. Titled "Stephen Miller is an Immigration Hypocrite. I Know Because I'm His Uncle" Uncle David, Miller's mother's brother, argues that in the absence of an opportunity to move to the United States in 1903 Stephen Miller's family, immigrants fleeing Russian pogroms in early 20th century,  would likely have perished during the Holocaust - that Stephen Miller would not even exist.

The uncle, David Glosser, a retired clinical neuroscientist, wrote that he was horrified by Miller’s behavior. He reminded his nephew that his family’s maternal roots can be traced to subsistence farmers in a shtetl in what is now Belarus.

Like thousands of other Jews they were terrorized by pogroms in the early twentieth century. The family patriarch, Wolf-Leib Glosser, arrived on Ellis Island in 1903 as a refugee.

Settling in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the Glossers became prosperous and a model of how the enterprise of immigrants helped to power America’s growth and culture. Miller’s mother is David Glosser’s sister.

“I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, who is an educated man and well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country,” David Glosser wrote in Politico.

Miller is the 32 year-old advisor to US President Donald Trump. He is the principal author of Trump's xenophobic, hate-inducing immigration-refugee policies including the Muslim Ban, the radical decrease in refugees to the USA and the accelerated policy to separate asylum seekers at the USA southern border from their children.

Despite a court order, as of late August, more than 500 children are still in US Government custody, scared, confused, unsure of ever seeing their parents again.

Miller's political choices and prominence have sparked outrage in some quarters of the American, and wider, Jewish community. Calling Miller a shanda, some Miller opponents have wondered why Judaism does not have an excommunication provision. Others have pondered how a person growing up in liberal Jewish reform Temple Santa Monica, California could turn his back on basic Jewish values.

A year ago, Rabbi Jeff Marx, who tutored Miller for his bar mitzvah, was already apologizing: "We did our best here to teach Stephen the ethical standards of Judaism," the Santa Monica Synagogue rabbi told The Hollywood Reporter in March 2017,. Marx lifting “his hands in a gesture of helplessness, was unwilling to say more.”

I have wondered what I would say to Stephen Miller should he visit our synagogue. What would you say and do? What would WE say and do?

As Ki Tavo asks us to transmit sacred values, and if we gather to support one other to fulfill our reciprocal obligations, and if we are enjoined to participate in Jewish education, are we not de facto engaged when a Stephen Miller arises, a person who to date is an example of Jewish education that "did not take"?

I believe that Stephen Miller reminds us of the challenges inherent in Ki Tavo's metaphorical message of RECIPROCITY: to honour the Divine by elevating our dreams, remembering our pain, being generous. We can speculate, but we cannot know, why Stephen Miller has turned out the way he has. Ki Tavo knows about these kinds of challenges.

Is it an irony or a message that Miller's political work targets migration/immigration even as the Jewish people of Ki Tavo are about to enter a new Hold Land?

In Ki Tavo the People of Israel receive a strange instruction: to set up stones, uncut stones, and to coat the stones with plaster and write upon the plastered stones the Teaching of Ki Tavo. Without the stones and the writing of the Teaching, the People of Israel will not be able to enter the Holy Land.  

I want to pass around a photograph. It is a photograph of Stephen Miller's former rabbi, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, protesting at Los Angeles International Airport against the US President's (Miller's) policy of separating Latin American children from their parents and detaining them at the US southern border with Mexico.

Interviewed about Miller, Rabbi Comess-Daniels demurred on trying to explain Stephen Miller. Instead he responded: "The Judaism we teach here is a liberal progressive Judaism based on longstanding Reform Jewish values. That of course includes respect for all human beings, respect for families and respect for children".

Action rather than outrage. Organizing and participating in protest rather than shaming. Standing up for "longstanding Jewish values". These are Rabbi Comess-Daniels responses to Stephen Miller.

 Ki Tavo is a mighty and moving Torah portion – with words to remember and words to fear. This Torah portion leaves us with a big job: to set up those stones and write upon them, inscribing in our minds that which can best help us reciprocate the blessings in our lives with a generous heart, conscious of history, willing to dream and act for better days.

Shabbat shalom.

Sun, 21 April 2024 13 Nisan 5784