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This week as we read Parashat Ki Tavo, we begin our countdown to the High Holydays. We have a huge number of exciting events happening for the next weeks.

Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the ceremony of the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple. It outlines the procedure for a farmer who harvests the first fruits of their field to bring that produce to the Temple as an offering. The farmer approaches the priest and presents his offering whereupon the priest takes it from him and places it before the altar. The farmer then recites a passage, familiar to us from the Pesach seder; “my father was a wandering Aramean…” and continues to recount the exodus from Egypt, God’s deliverance and the giving of the land from which the produce came. It is a really interesting passage which tells the history of our people and acknowledges the bringer’s place in that history. It is the only proscriptive prayer in the Torah and interestingly, the farmer had to bring the offering and recite the words himself, he was not permitted to deputize someone else. The farmer had to stand in the holy space, feel the power of the moment, link himself to his past and offer gratitude for the blessings of the harvest and sustenance.

What a powerful message for us. Today there is so much that we “outsource” to save time, for efficiency or simply because we no longer have the skills to perform the task. This passage reminds us that there are some things that we should not hand over to others, they are important moments and to feel their power, to truly connect to the ritual we need to be present, to do it ourselves It is difficult in our world to stop and take time to reflect, to think about our place in history, our link in the chain, our purpose, to be grateful. Shabbat is our opportunity each week to feel the power of that connection, to join hands across time and participate in something magical and sheltered from all the stresses and challenges of our daily lives. It is easy to get caught up in the race of life, to put off until next week a celebration of Shabbat, to leave it to others to take care of. But like the Israelites bringing their offerings to the Temple, to truly feel the power and blessing of Shabbat we need to participate and do it ourselves. Take time to make the day special, set it apart as a beautiful oasis, away from everything which causes us frustration in our daily lives and celebrate a moment of eternity where everything fades into the background except what brings you pleasure, joy and rest.

In our Torah portion this week, we read a plethora of laws stretching from the mundane to the most central principles of the Torah. And in amongst them, a law all about individuality and its importance. The parasha contains the rule forbidding us from ploughing our fields with an ox and a donkey together. Most interpreters understand this law as being about preventing animal cruelty. The ox and the donkey have different strengths and to require them to plough together would be cruel and inflict pain and suffering on them both. But this week I read an interpretation by Rabbi Artson who suggests a different perspective. He says that it is teaching us about the importance of being who we are, of embracing our individuality and celebrating what makes us unique. He writes: to harness them together would mean that “one animal would constantly feel pressured to adopt the standards of the other” (Bedside Torah pg. 323) rather than be true to who they are in their individuality.

In our world, we talk about a cult of individuality. There is an implication that we are all taking selfies, posting on Facebook and Twitter, letting people know who we are and in the process demonstrating the ways we are different. But perhaps this gives a false sense of celebrating difference. If we look closely at the Facebook pages, the selfies, so much of it is about being the same; conforming to the norms around us and being like everyone else. There was a wonderful video doing the rounds of YouTube where a father filmed his daughter, unbeknownst to her, taking a series of selfies, trying to get her selfie pout exactly right. I am sure she only sent out the best selfie and deleted the rest. These moments which appear to be spontaneous are often far from it and instead of reflecting who we are, it shows who we are when we are trying to be like everyone else. I heard someone comment the other day that as much as Instagram is supposed to be casual, un-posed photos, how often do we see an Instagram shot with someone’s mouth full or their eyes closed and all the other mistakes we would expect in photos which are spontaneous? We harbour a false sense that we embrace difference when in fact much of social media has instead provided us with more means of showing how we are all the same, leaving very little room for individuality.

Our parasha this week reminds us of how important it is to embrace who we are, our differences and our uniqueness, and to celebrate those parts of us as well. It can be difficult to be outside the norm, but God created each of us to be someone special in the world and if we take someone else’s path then we are not becoming who can be. May we all find our way and celebrate who we are.

We often assume that the Torah is static and unchanging, and in one sense it is. The scrolls that we open in any synagogue around the world have exactly the same words written in them, and the written word of the Torah will never change. However, for thousands of years, the concept “Torah”, which means teaching, has come to include all the wisdom and teaching that comes from the five books of Moses. What many do not think about is that sometimes we “expand” the message of Torah and sometimes we “contract” it. This week’s parashah presents a perfect example of this principle.

On one hand, we hear one of the essential teachings of Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — justice with righteousness you shall pursue. This one verse has been expanded, in conjunction with many other teachings of Torah, to establish the pursuit of justice as one of the core principles of Judaism. Having been strangers in Egypt, we are called upon to have one standard of justice for stranger and citizen alike. Justice requires a standard of equity for individuals no matter their age or background; it calls upon us to have concern in particular for the underprivileged and oppressed, righting the wrongs created by human relationship and society.

On the other hand, we have one of the harshest teachings of the Torah put forward this week: the genocide of the inhabitants of the land of which we are to take possession. Tradition has contracted this passage by saying that the commandment was never fulfilled — but in our days we must constrict it even further. More than any other passage, this one calls upon us (especially in a world where too many justify their killings in the name and word of God) to reject this as a principle of Torah, whether actual or potential.

How do we get the right to expand and contract the Torah? Even if this were God’s teaching, it is quite clear that as God’s creatures we have obligations to use our minds for discernment. The Torah opens with the first human eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge — the implication being that we are responsible for our choices of good and bad, especially when it comes to expanding and contracting the respective teachings of Torah.

The relationship between humans and other animals continues to be as vexed and complex as it was in Torah times, for we recognize that we have consciousness somewhat higher than the animals, while also being animals ourselves. A rabbinic midrash puts it quite bluntly, paraphrased as follows: “Like animals, humans eat, drink, defecate, procreate and die. Like the higher beings, humans stand upright, understand, speak and perceive”. What do we do with these differences? The tradition has acknowledged our power over animals, yet responsibility for them as well.

The Psalmist writes: “You have made the mortal human little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty. You have made him master over your handiwork, laying the world at his feet, sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too; the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas.” (Psalm 8:5–7). This power over the rest of animal life reflects other teachings of the Torah, including those from the opening story of creation in which we are given “dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and the animals of the land”. While some have used these verses to justify our absolute right to use animals as we wish, Jews have never understood or taught Torah in this manner. According to thousands of years of received tradition, our dominion requires care for and duty toward animals. Judaism expects all humanity to avoid “tz’ar ba’ale chayim,” causing pain to animals.

In this week’s parasha, for a second time, we are taught the lessons of kashrut: laws that need to be seen in the context of the fact that when humans were given dominion over the animals, they were supposed to be eating a strict vegetarian diet of “the seed-bearing fruits of trees and plants.” Later teachings of Torah allow the consumption of animals, and in this light the laws of kashrut are to limit ourselves to eating land animals that do not chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, sea animals that do not have fins and scales, and birds that are not domesticated. Other received traditions limit our use of animals in many ways; even animals have the right to rest on Shabbat.

These limitations must be seen in terms of what the ancients knew about animals in general. Contemporary scientists tell us there are even more similarities between us and animals; animals are far more sentient and similar to humans than the ancients understood. These days, not causing cruelty to animals requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for cosmetic products and many other related issues. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. Our daily choices have life-long consequences.

If we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at our fellow animals with eyes that are not merely human but humane.

This week’s Torah portion provides us with a beautiful, luscious description of the land of Israel; a place dripping with honey, flowing rivers and streams, a rich, fertile land which will provide more than enough for the needs of the people about to enter. A land where they may “eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing” (Deut 8:9); an idyllic paradise. But it comes with a warning not to imagine that this good fortune comes our way because of any intrinsic merit within us. We are not to grow haughty and arrogant, to believe that we are better or more worthy because we have a newfound abundance. Instead, we are to always remember our humble beginnings, to appreciate what we have and to be grateful for the blessings in our lives. How wise the Torah is about human nature! How often do we see people attaining wealth or power and becoming more convinced of their own invincibility and their own entitlement with every dollar they amass? How often have we seen fame and power change a person and the way they treat the world and those around them? We often hear about faith in times of adversity, but in some ways it can be more difficult to hold onto our faith and our ideals in times of abundance and plenty for it is then that we are vulnerable to feelings of superiority based on our comfort levels, complacency which is born of lives of material wealth and security. The Torah reminds us in these moments to take stock, to recognize that the blessings we are fortunate to enjoy in our lives are gifts, not entitlements. They are beautiful, precious presents which we have been lucky to receive, and for each one we should be grateful.

Judaism is not an ascetic religion, it impels us to enjoy the world and its abundance but not in an unfettered way. We are to share our blessings with others. But we cannot do that unless we recognize the gifts we have been given, to take moments to be grateful for what we have. Today, we hear much about the need to be mindful and practice mindfulness. Judaism calls to us to take time every day to give thanks for what we have. We are to say 100 blessings every day, each one an opportunity to stop and appreciate what we have and to acknowledge our good fortune; to be mindful of the blessings of the everyday, which we may otherwise take for granted.

I pray that we can all be thankful for the gifts in our lives and accept them with humility, grace and goodness.

In this week’s parashah, Moses teaches us the words of the Shema: “Hear, Israel, Adonai is Your God, Adonai is One”. For millennia this has been the first declaration taught to our children, and also recited on one’s deathbed. According to the tradition, the recitation of this line is the acceptance of God’s sovereignty over us. The concept requires deep reflection, thus the tradition that many cover their eyes when reciting this first line of what has since become the three paragraphs of the Shema. (In addition to this line, three paragraphs of Torah have been placed in our liturgy, which elaborate what we are to do with this teaching of the unity of God: to love, to teach about love, and to remind ourselves about these mitzvot at the center of our lives, with the reminders of tefillin, mezuzah and tzittzit).

In Moses’ time, his challenge was to get the people to believe in One God, as opposed to panoply of deities. In our time, the challenge is to get people to believe in God at all. Unfortunately, too many of us feel the need to attach to God ancestral stories, whether from the Bible or later legend. Yet the rabbis themselves taught that “the Torah is written in the language of men,” meaning much stated about God is metaphorical and allegorical. One of the great medieval rabbis, Moses Maimonides, then taught is much simpler to describe what God is not than what God is. Maimonides, in his Principles of Faith, presents the parameters of Judaism’s teaching of God: God is one, eternal and beyond compare. God is the totality of all that is.

In fact, the Hebrew word we read as “Adonai” is actually a form of the verb to be. That is, God is another word for “all that is”. The declaration of Shema calls upon Jews to consider, every evening and morning, that all life is interconnected, that we are all just part of a greater unity. From the minute quark to the expanse of the universe, existence is one and we are one with it. The declaration of Shema affirms that truth, with the implication being that we will thus take responsibility for our being and relationships. The following verse teaches what we are called upon to do: to love being with all our heart, soul and might. Even more than a statement of theology, the Shema is a declaration of awareness and duty.

During this period in the Jewish calendar, we read some of the most poignant and disturbing words in our canon. We read about the city of Jerusalem weeping as she is abandoned by her people, we read about God, lamenting the fate of our people, and we read words of rebuke, directed at us by the prophets and God, for our behavior. The assault upon us is unrelenting, until we reach Tisha B’Av, the time when we pour out our grief and our pain at the tragedies we have suffered as a people. We mourn and cry for those we have lost, for the holes left in our lives by their absence. We cry for ourselves, for our people and for the suffering of humanity. And then, after our time of lament, we find the words of comfort and hope, words which call us back to life, to return to the world and resume the work of repairing the brokenness.

This year, these words are even more poignant as we look around our world at the moment, it needs healing. It seems that everywhere we turn there is suffering and pain. There seems to be one assault after another on our faith and belief in humanity, in our hope that people are better than what we are seeing in the world. Murder, kidnapping, pain, suffering. Young girls taken because they dared to wish for a better future, a person blowing a plane out of the sky for no reason, war in Israel and Gaza. It seems like something significant is happening at the moment, that the world is being ripped apart. Conflict, war, tragedy, violence leaving in its wake a heaviness and a burden which we feel powerless to shift.

The world needs healing and so do we. We sit here worried for our friends, our family, our humanity. We are lost in a sea of despair and it is hard to remain above water. But we cannot stay in this place, we cannot remain adrift in the seas for drowning is not an option. We must learn from Tisha B’av to turn to the world with hope and try to build a better world for us all. We need to look for the good, to try and find the places of hope and light in the midst of the darkness; the people who are reaching out to one another in kindness and compassion, the ones who show their humanity even in the depths of darkness and tragedy, to find the stories of love and care and blessing. For the world is not only darkness, there are shafts of light pushing through the pain, and it is there we can find the hope for us and for humanity.

We can put our faith in humanity once more, we can lift our eyes to the mountains and find our help there in the inspiring stories of people who have brought goodness and blessing into the world. Gandhi said that we each need to become the change that we want to see in the world and that is our challenge now as we face a world of tragedy and pain, it is to find the courage to hope, to find the strength to believe in a different tomorrow; one which is filled with peace and serenity for all.

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