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Devarim - Ki Tavo

This parasha was one of the first Jewish texts to come into my life - in the form of my bat mitzvah sedra. In my 1998 (indeed!) dvar Torah, as today, I sidestepped the unspeakable horror of the tochecha rebuke section of this parasha (so unspeakable that we read it in an undertone in shul) and headed for the joyous description of an Israelite farmer bringing their first fruits to the temple, a ceremony known as Bikkurim.

It’s a text that I’ve returned to over the years, adding new layers of meaning. At the age of 12, it was all about gratitude for what we have. As a teenager, I noticed that the farmer’s declaration script features centrally in the Hagaddah. The text itself uses the word הִגַּדְתִּי - it’s a perfect example of telling our potted history:

You shall then recite as follows before your God יהוה: “My father was a fugitive Aramean [one translation of the puzzling words אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי]. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us… (Read the rest here)

At seminary aged 18, it was pointed out that the Hagaddah version lifts the text out of its bikkurim context and removes the Eretz Yisrael ending. It makes it a mini story of the exodus from Egypt, just without the Zionist ending. Why? In my 20s I discovered the power of storytelling in leadership. This text is a perfect example of how telling our own story can have a powerful impact on how we and others feel.

Later in my 20s I learnt about questions of interpretation with the text - who is the Arami and who is “my father”? Different commentators suggest that “Arami” is Avraham, Yaakov or Lavan, each with their own persuasive reasoning. It’s a text riddled with grammatical and linguistic puzzles. What is it trying to tell us?

In my 30s, I learnt the Mishna’s technicolor description of what the procession to the ceremony was like. An ordinary yid got to participate in the theater of national celebration:

…An ox would go in front of them, his horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them until they would draw close to Jerusalem. When they drew close to Jerusalem they would send messengers in advance, and they would adorn their bikkurim… (Mishna Bikkurim 3)

My latest layer of discovery is a powerful letter from the Rambam to a convert named Ovadia, which you can read here, in which the Rambam insists that converts should also reside “my father” even though they didn’t have biologically Jewish ancestors.

Each of these layers could be a dvar Torah in itself, but this week, as we approach the end of reading this Torah cycle, I just want to revel in the Torah’s quality of generativity - for those who grasp Torah, she is the gift that keeps on giving. I wonder what new discoveries my coming decades will bring!

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