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  • Andrew Roland

Parashat Ki Tavo 5776: A wandering Aramean…

In our Parashah we have a description of the ritual of bringing the first fruits to the Temple, text that might sound familiar to you as it was included in the Pesach Haggadah by the rabbis. This text is special because is the first time ever that we have a fixed text to be said in a ritual setting, until then people only prayed personal words to God, for the first time there is a set prayer to be said by everyone. The text said at this moment is quite particular. It is mostly a summary of the history of the people of Israel starting with “a wandering Aramean was my father…” until the present situation for the farmer when Israel is in its land. This farmer is commanded to recite these words as a way to recognize the blessings he received from God. The fact that he has a land to work and that he has produce from it, is not an obvious thing. Maybe the reason it appears in the Haggadah is to remind this person bringing an offering that he is able to do that also because of the Exodus from Egypt. As it says in the Haggadah, if God wouldn’t have taken us out of Egypt, maybe we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves in Egypt and we wouldn’t have a land… and we wouldn’t have produce to offer. This declaration turns the act of bringing the first fruits to more than just thanksgiving, but also a recognition and awareness of all the chain of events, from Abraham leaving his home until the Exodus and the conquering of the Land of Israel, all the things that had to happened in order for our farmer to be able to bring his produce to the Temple. It is interesting that the rabbis chose this text over all overs to be the heart of the Haggadah and the story of the Exodus. It would have been so much obvious to use the actual text from Shmot telling the story of the Exodus! Maybe we can see in these verses an example of how telling the story of the Exodus on the Seder should be. It is not supposed to be a history lesson, but an effort to understand our lives in light of the Exodus. How this story does touch our lives? Not as something that happened in the ancient past, but something that has repercussions still in our days, in our lives. In the Masorti Movement we give history a lot of importance, as a tool to enrich our Judaism and spirit. Long before we were the Masorti Movement, even long before it was called Conservative Judaism, our name was “Judaism Positive-Historical”. The WIssenschaft des Judentums, or in English, the Scientific and Critical Study of Jewish texts, history and customs, started in 19th Century Germany and our movement is a product of that process. The problem with this approach is that this kind of study brings to a certain disappointment from the traditional sources, because the scholars understood that the objectives of the writers of the Tanach and the Talmud were not always spiritual, but sometimes political or social. We understood that everything has a background and context and sometimes it looks that what was meaningful for one period and place it is not as meaningful for us. It is easy using the modern approach to just dismiss Judaism as a nice culture, but irrelevant to us, or on the other side, to build a wall between study and practice and live in permanent tension. I believe we should try something different and is to give religious value to critical study. This kind of approach, that we use in our Rabbinical seminaries and educational institutions, remind us that our great leaders were at the end also made of flesh and blood, limited by their place and time. A religious leader that demands your loyalty because of how pious, just and infallible he is, well… you should run away from that person. A true religious leader, according to our approach, is somebody that says yes, I have some defects, I am not perfect, but knowing this enable me to be empathic and wise, to identify and understand you. Our way is not simple, demands a lot from us. Many times we will have to leave behind beliefs and ideas we had for years, in order to rebuild them in light of the new knowledge we have. We can then remember our Parashah and understand that we don’t want a religion of historians, but a religion of people with memory, knowing where they are coming from, proud of their tradition but able to deal with that tradition in order to adopt and internalize it. People that understand that our memories and traditions influence us, did so in the past and will do so in the future. The search for truth, a memory that is not blind, but an active one, a living one, that is what make us Masorti Jews and in my opinion, more truthful and honest Jews.

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