Sabrina Sojourner | Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8.
It’s interesting to note something regarding a parshah that had previously escaped my attention. Last year I noticed that Ki Tavo was on the Shabbat that transitions into Leil Selichot (Selichot Night), as it also does this year (Sept. 17). It turns out that Ki Tavo always falls before Selichot which always precedes Rosh Hashanah.
On the spiritual level, liturgically and rhythmically it makes sense that Ki Tavo is generally read within 10 days of Rosh Hashanah. In this parshah, Moshe concludes giving the details of our covenant with God. We are given the instructions for declaring the blessings we will receive for obeying God’s laws, ordinances and rules that cover all aspects of our lives, including how we are to relate to God, each other and the most vulnerable members of our communities. The parshah also declares the increasingly dire curses that will find us if we break the covenant. Whether reading the Hebrew or the English, it’s easy to see the linguistic parallels between the curses and the themes of lamentations.
We are to “observe (the laws, ordinances and rules) faithfully with all your heart and soul.” In return, God affirms we are God’s treasured people. This mutual pact binds us to God and also obligates God to do for us. In different legends, it is imagined that the Eternal declares “You are now my people!” and that each Israelite declares, “You are now my God!”
We humans have vastly different cultural, contextual and individual relationships to commitment. We do our best to keep our commitments, and inevitably something happens and we fall short or fail to show up at all. Some people are unstoppable when it comes to keeping their word. Others are dependably unreliable, and there’s a range between.
Even the unstoppable people who keep their word above all else can unintentionally or intentionally hurt or disappoint others in service of keeping their word or obtaining perfection. I know that the dependably unreliable person hurts and disappoints themselves as much if not more than they hurt or disappoint others, often causing them to feel like a failure. Wherever we fall on the spectrum of disappointing and hurting others, and therefore metaphorically disappointing and hurting the Divine, we come to Leil Selichot to find the path to
Leil Selichot is a series of praise poems and petitionary prayers filled with love, ache and longing for closeness to the Ineffable, even though we know we are not worthy. It is one of many ways we seek to remind the Eternal that we are still connected. We have not forgotten Who created us, and we trust that God has not forgotten us.
Rosh Hashanah is two days, even in Israel. Why? The rabbis wrote Rosh Hashanah has two qualities: judgment/din and mercy/rachamim. Our tears on the first day soften din, creating room for rachamim to emerge on day two.
Ki Tavo is intended to break open our hearts to the praise and pleas of Leil Selichot. The repetition of selichot
prayers seeks to move us away from complacency, apathy or both to care enough for ourselves to release self-judgment, and find a way to forgive ourselves — even if you are the person who is chronically unreliable or the person seeking perfection. In forgiving ourselves, we can find spaciousness to release grudges and forgive others. More spaciousness appears. From this openness, we are ready to revisit the blessings of being connected to the Divine One.
Sabrina Sojourner is the rosh beit for Theater J’s Expanding the Canon program, and the Jewish chaplain for St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington.