This week we will be reading from parashat Ki Tavo. These last parshiyot in Deuteronomy are Moses’ final words to the Israelites. They are a part of both his farewell and his final appeal to the Israelites. He is both reminding them of their history as well as their obligations to try to ensure a future life for them, without him to guide them.
Whenever reading from Ki Tavo, I can’t help but think of Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Act 1, Scene 3 of Hamlet. Polonius is attempting to cram in as much advice as he possibly can to his son before Laertes heads off to Denmark. Polonius’ words include the recommendations not to spend too much money on entertainment, lending or borrowing money or judging others. Here we also find the most famous words from this speech, “This above all: To thine ownself be true.”
One can imagine that when reading Ki Tavo, we find the same sense of urgency. According to the Plaut Torah commentary, Moses “summarizes Israel’s history, highlighted by the establishment of the Covenant. Then in covenantal style, it recapitulates blessings and curses, with heaven and earth invoked as witnesses to this formal restatement.” Moses then reminds the Israelites of the core of their obligations which is that “The Eternal your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 26:16).
However, this raises a larger question: what if we are not able to observe all the mitzvot with all of our hearts and all of our souls?
The truth is, as Jews and as human beings, we continue to make the conscious and deliberate choice to focus both on the ethical interpretations of the commandments as well as the ritual observances. But even then, we sometimes fall short of our own aspirations for how we strive to live openly, and proudly as Jews. We can also fall short in living up to the ideals and expectations we set for ourselves.
The High Holy Days are all about reorienting ourselves by helping us to return to the ways set before us by our tradition and by our personal goals. In this way, Ki Tavo ties in nicely with the observance of Selichot.
Traditionally, Selichot falls on the last Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah unless Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, then it is observed the week before (like this year). During this time, it is tradition to recite a number of penitential prayers and poems to help prepare the individual and community for the spiritual challenges as we enter the High Holy Day Season. This powerful and meaningful experience contains liturgical and poetic expressions designed to turn our hearts towards God and our true selves.
Through the reading of Ki Tavo, we are not just observing and celebrating Shabbat, we are also connecting our weekly Torah reading to our greater preparation for the Yamim Norai’im, the High Holy Days. During these days may we be encouraged to uncover and reconnect to the pathways of holiness we have set for ourselves and has been laid out for us by generations of tradition.
Like with Polonius, there should be a sense of urgency at this time and at this season. We are about to head off into a New Year. Do we have everything we need to be spiritually prepared even in the most uncertain of times? Are we ready to be true to ourselves?
If not, what will it take to get ready? What reminders do we need? This past year-and-a-half has been filled with turmoil, upheaval, and uncertainty. Perhaps then, the way to steady ourselves is to turn to the advice, customs, practices, and readings already established. They can help ground us as we embark on new spiritual journeys. Like Laertes, there is a lot to do and a lot to think about. We just need to find the capacity to observe them in the meaningful ways that will fill up our hearts and our souls.
Or to borrow from the advice from our own tradition, in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “The day is short and the task is great … and the master of the house is waiting. It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:15-16).
Let the most important spiritual work of the year begin. For the time is now.