Three rituals of the covenant


This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8.

Ki Tavo clarifies our covenantal relationship with God through three rituals. First, after entering the Promised Land, each Israelite was to express his or her gratitude to God for their freedom and their abundant harvests, to bear witness to the goodness of the land by bringing their first fruits as an offering.

The Israelite was then to make the declaration, “My father was a wandering Aramean…” — a summary of our history as a people from Abraham through the Exodus from Egypt. This is the passage that we recite yearly during the Passover seder. This ceremony was originally performed during the ancient Chag Habikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits, which later became Shavuot.

The second ritual is that every third year we are to set aside a tithe (10 percent) of our crops to support the Levites, as well as the fatherless, widows and strangers. We are reminded of the obligations of living together as a sacred community: to take care of those less fortunate than we are.

The third ritual is an excellent example of immersive, active, experiential Jewish learning. The Israelites divided their tribes between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim. Imagine hundreds of thousands of Israelites on each mountain.

From the center of the valley, the Levites called out curses for those who do not follow the Covenant. The rest of the Israelites responded to each curse, “Amen.” Then the blessings were shouted by the Levites for those who follow God’s commandments. The rest of the Israelites responded to each blessing, “Amen.” We are reminded that our actions have consequences, and in living Torah, we will live lives of blessing.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, teaches that a covenant society emphasizes its stories that honor a moral bond or recall acts of moral commitment. Telling the stories is essential in reminding us why we are connected. For example, our monuments on the National Mall all contain quotes that emphasize American values of freedom. Regarding Israel, we tell the stories of the chalutzim, the early pioneers who worked the land to create a homeland for all Jews.

And in Judaism, we turn and turn the Torah, retelling our stories as a covenantal people and a holy nation. Telling the stories is essential, but not enough. We must ensure that we realize our covenantal values through our continued actions.

Questions for discussion

Since most of us are not part of an agrarian society, what are your “first fruits”? What do you do that you can view as an offering to God?

What is your family story? How do you find ways to tell your stories? How is your story an extension of Torah?

What are some of the blessings and curses in your life? What actions can you take to add more blessings?

Cantor Allen Leider is director of lifelong learning for Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.

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