Without the past, there is no future

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

Isaiah 60:1-60:22

What does it mean to have arrived? To have reached the destination that oriented your entire life? To have finally fulfilled your long-hoped-for dreams?

Our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which means “when you enter,” begins with the words, “When you come into the land which Adonai your God gives … ” (Deut. 26:1). Addressing the historic moment when Israel is about to enter the actual Promised Land after 40 years of wandering, this Torah portion continues to speak to the meanings of arrival in our personal and communal lives.

To arrive, to reach your destination, to actualize goals and dreams calls for taking time to acknowledge the blessing of success. Today we typically recite Shehechiyanu, thanking God for sustaining us and for bringing us to such a time.

In Ki Tavo, Moses, speaking on God’s behalf, goes further. A momentous arrival calls for more than a spontaneous outburst of gratitude and delight. It requires a measured response that mirrors the many dimensions of such a moment. It requires also remembering the journey that has led to it.

In this portion we find what is probably the most familiar account of Israel’s origins (made famous in the Passover haggadah). “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers … and became a very populous nation … The Egyptians dealt harshly with us … Adonai freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut. 26:5-9).

In the Women’s Torah Commentary, Alice Shalvi teaches that almost the entire book of Deuteronomy is a reprise, not only of the events of the 40 years in the wilderness (which the people Moses is addressing have not witnessed themselves), but also of the commandments first encapsulated in the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai and later elaborated in the long, detailed catalogues of precepts and prohibitions.

Now in this passage and the passages that follow, the time has come to look toward the entry into the new home, to review the covenant, and to rededicate oneself — individually and as a people — by first acknowledging that God has fulfilled the promise given to our forebears. This is to be immediately followed by an expression of awareness of past suffering — not necessarily one’s own, but that of the collective. Remembrance of things past is an essential part of developing a new identity, beginning a new existence.

This beginning is part of the arrival and it is remembering the good fortune that has been bestowed. And true celebration means remembering those who have not yet “arrived,” who have not as yet benefited from all that you now have. The purpose of these recollections is to stimulate us to behave differently from those who oppressed us — to give to “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill” (Deut. 26:12).

Our Torah portion concludes with the recitation of blessings and curses. The list of curses depicts a devastated community that we see today in many parts of the world — people being killed, sold into slavery or exiled.

There is a nuance, however, that needs drawing out. The curses are addressed to each individual with the singular “you,” the text stresses that communal destiny begins with personal responsibility. It is this connection that is at the heart of these teachings.

Our text acknowledges that each individual may well be a victim, but it also affirms that humans in principle are not helpless, subject to the whims of a world with no moral control. Each person’s sufferings are neither random happenings, haphazard side effects of natural or social processes, nor necessarily caused by that individual’s misbehavior. For Ki Tavo, the world remains a system governed by a just and compassionate God who cares deeply for those in it.

There is central message here: This horrible fate is preventable. As those who have arrived or are on the verge of doing so, we have the privilege and power to make the decisive difference. Our life as individuals is woven into the larger fabric to which we are related and for which we are responsible. To make this difference requires attention to the teachings of Torah, which have been made available to you, this day and every day.

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.