Parshat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
In this week’s parshat, Ki Tavo, the Torah details the consequences of our actions when we disobey God. There are more than 50 verses of rebuke/tocheicha that describe the awful things we will bring upon ourselves if we don’t choose wisely, if we don’t “choose life.” And in the middle of all these admonitions and curses the text says, “v’hayitta meshuga mi-mareh einekha asher tireh,” — “you will be driven mad by what your eyes behold.” It is not hard for us to recognize this feeling the Torah describes — that we live in a world gone crazy. When we contemplate the fact that in our own country children were torn from the arms of their parents, we wonder how it’s possible that we have so lost our way.
The rabbis were wise to have us read these verses at this time of year. Because the first step to spiritual renewal is to be driven mad by what our eyes behold. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, arrives with a message: Take a look at yourself and take a look at your world, and realize that there are realities that are unacceptable. Realize that you, no matter how insignificant you think you are in the universe, have the power to do something. Scrape away the hardness around your heart. Open your eyes and ears, allow yourself to be driven mad by what your eyes see and by what your ears hear, so that you say, enough!
The premise of Moshe’s rebuke is that we can do better. And at the end of the parshat, Moshe expresses this idea in a rhetorical question: “Hasn’t God given you an understanding heart, eyes that see, ears that hear?” Moses’ question tries to remind the people that they have all the equipment they will ever need to do the right thing, and to make the right choices.
And so it is with us too, in this season of personal change. The work of teshuva does not involve a pilgrimage to a far away land to attain enlightenment. Teshuva is not something that only people with special talent do. Teshuva is about trying to see the things that we often don’t notice or that we try to ignore.
In the beginning of parshat Ki Tavo, the Torah describes the way farmers would bring the first fruits to the Temple and give them to the Kohen, the priest. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz points out the farmer’s potential sense of loss when he sees the Kohen, who is constantly surrounded by the holiness of the Temple, while he merely works the land.
But then the farmer remembers that wherever a person stands, she stands on holy ground, and wherever a person is, she can feel surrounded by God’s presence.
When we undertake the very difficult work of opening our eyes and allowing ourselves to recognize and perhaps be driven crazy by what we see, it can help to remember that God’s presence is available to us as we do so. We sense the holy not just in Torah study or in worship, but rather, in every moment and in every situation in which we remind ourselves of it.
As we open our eyes to the world’s brokenness, we can simultaneously open ourselves to God’s presence that can strengthen us and make it possible for us to take that first, small step toward repairing it. May God bless us this shabbat and month with the will and the strength to do that. JN
Rabbi Elana Kanter is the founder and director of the Women’s Jewish Learning Center and co-rabbi of The New Shul.