Kee Tavo: Days of Awe call for acts of generosity

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Kee Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

Isaiah 60:1-22

Do you remember your first love, first car, first kiss? Your first day of school, college or work? Your first time away from home? Although of little significance to anyone else, these kinds of "firsts" are often sealed in our memories to revisit, savor or, perhaps, even to dread.

Although personal "firsts" and victories may only be important to the individual, there are those who achieve firsts that are noticed by many. The "Guinness Book of World Records" is filled with the achievements of people who have succeeded at some feat of strength, fortitude or endurance for the first time on record.

While setting a record for marathon dancing or watermelon consumption may not be universally impressive, there are other firsts of great significance to individuals and community alike. The Bible recognizes a first that Jews would all be wise to consider. Deuteronomy (26:1-2) records the ancient custom of bringing an offering of first fruits: "When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you occupy it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil which you harvest from the land the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name."

The offering of first fruits, like the other firsts of our lives, acts as a guidepost. First-fruit offerings mark the passage of time, enabling us to consider where we have been and reflect on where we are going.

Our ancestors recognized that for lives to have meaning, they must be punctuated regularly by acts of generosity, devotion and thanksgiving. Without such landmarks, and without the opportunity to step back, take stock and even give back some of the rich bounty we have received, we run the risk of feeling that our lives are without meaning.

The time period preceding the High Holy Days serves as a guidepost for our lives in much the same way that the designated season of the first fruits to the ancient Temple fulfilled this important function. When properly utilized, this penitential season can be a time of introspection, personal housecleaning, goal setting and evaluation.

Jews who may be absent from the synagogue for most of the year actually look forward to synagogue attendance because it affords them a rare opportunity to step outside the rush of life to reflect on their lives during the past year. Just as our ancestors brought the first-fruit offerings to the great Temple in Jerusalem, many of us bring the offerings of our hearts in the form of prayer, repentance and charity — the tripartite foundation of this sacred season and cornerstone of our Holy Days prayerbook.

Kee Tavo, the Torah portion for this week, sets the tone for this introspective season and for the coming High Holy Days, also known as the Days of Awe. It reminds worshippers that championing the key elements of this season — prayer, repentance and charity — results in life and blessings. Shunning them results in disaster and death.

These are the themes that also resonate in Nitzavim, the Torah portion read next week and during Yom Kippur. The powerful words of this penitential season are foreshadowed in Kee Tavo: "All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you but heed the word of the Lord your God…All these curses shall befall you; they shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are wiped out, because you did not heed the Lord your God and keep the commandments and laws that He enjoined upon you" (Deut. 28:2-45).

With a large array of blessings and curses, this Torah portion directs each individual to be personally responsible. Thus, when we heed the ancient custom of bringing first fruits — or its modern equivalent, offerings of the heart — we recognize that our actions can yield life and blessing, just as our inattention to spiritual matters can result in misfortune and death. It is a choice that should not be treated lightly as we examine our lives at this sacred season.