Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Parashat Ki Tavo
August 27, 2021
I want you to take a moment and reflect on the best gift you ever received. Was it a childhood present? Or something given to you as an adult? Was it an object, or an experience? Or was it something intangible, not really a thing at all, but a relationship, or an encounter?
Now, I want you to think about the best gift you ever gave. Take a moment and reflect. Was it a surprise? Did it involve careful planning, some thoughtfulness? Or did you find that the gift you gave was only ‘the best’ much later, and in the moment didn’t think much of it at all?
What is the purpose of gift giving? It’s an act of generosity, to be sure. Many of us love giving; love the experience of making someone else smile, even if that person is a stranger. Think of how many of us participate in the gift drive at the holidays for the Family Promise families, for example. Receiving, of course, can be a different story; many of us aren’t quite sure what to do when the generosity of others is directed at us, instead of vice-versa. But on top of that, there is the predicament that sometimes, we don’t fully understand or appreciate the gifts we’re given until much later. The volume of poetry that didn’t speak to us in our teens becomes well-worn and dog-eared in our middle-age. The garish memento put away in a cabinet becomes a discussion piece at holidays years later. And to be more metaphorical, the advice or lesson we failed to take to heart at one point in our lives becomes, for many of us, a great gift of wisdom that we rely upon for years later. Perhaps, as we contemplate these gifts with the advantage of hindsight, we wonder if our expressions of gratitude were sufficient at the time, or if there is some way, we can express that gratitude more fully now.
Our portion, and all of Deuteronomy, as Rabbi Shai Held points, out is very much focused on gifts; or rather, God as gracious gift-giver. God brings our People to a Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, a place where our ancestors could dwell in peace and prosperity. It is also concerned with gratitude, or lack thereof. There is the deep concern, a worry, in Moses’ voice, that somehow Israel will get soft. That they will enter the land, benefit from its bounty—GOD’S BOUNTY—and forget that such bounty isn’t due to anything that they did, or any special quality that they have, but rather God’s graciousness. So, we find one of the oldest rituals we continue to practice in some way: the first fruits ritual. We are commanded to bring the first fruits to the place God will make the Divine Name known (that is, The Temple in Jerusalem), give them to the Priest, and recite a formula that we still say as part of our seder: my father was a wandering Aramean. He descended to Egypt in meager numbers, grew to become a great nation, was oppressed until God redeemed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and now I come to bring this gift in acknowledgement of God’s gift.
Even the Torah understands that this is a ritual of self-awareness; God, the giver of gifts, doesn’t want or need our gift. But we need to retell our history, to recognize where we came from, and where our gifts come from. It is true that we are blessed, but if we don’t acknowledge how we became blessed, our sense of awe and appreciation might evaporate, replaced with a hardness of spirit, a kind of spiritual dullness, a failure of gratitude. As the Christian theologian John Goldingay writes in Old Testament Theology, “The people must keep alive the memory of oppression and deliverance because otherwise the wonder of their possessing the land may be lost.”
We are right around 10 days to ending 5781, what has been for many of us a truly difficult and challenging year, but still one filled with gifts given and received, some we may have failed to appreciate in the moment we received them. Before we enter 5782, it would be good if we reflected on the gifts of our lives. Which ones will we carry into a new year, will give us the strength to move forward, and continue to care, to express our own generosity for those who need it, and gratitude when such generosity is directed our way, when it’s our turn? With ten days remaining, let us reflect on those gifts, and let those gifts teach us to better share our love for one another in this coming year, for it is only through that love, that sharing, that we will enter blessing. May it be so, Amen.
(1) When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, (2) you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish [the Divine] name. (3) You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our fathers to assign us.”
(א) וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃ (ב) וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ מֵרֵאשִׁ֣ית ׀ כָּל־פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר תָּבִ֧יא מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָ֖ךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ בַטֶּ֑נֶא וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃ (ג) וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֑ם וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֗יו הִגַּ֤דְתִּי הַיּוֹם֙ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּי־בָ֙אתִי֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ לָ֥תֶת לָֽנוּ׃