KI TAVO, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Ki Tavo begins by recounting the Rite of the First Fruits. Once the Israelites had settled the Promised Land, each farmer would annually bring his fruits to the Temple. He thanked God for liberation from Egypt, for the land of Israel and for that year's bounty.
The Talmud describes parades arriving weekly from all over Israel festooned with baskets of produce to be presented to the Kohanim as offerings. Later, our sages made the "Declaration of the First Fruits" the cornerstone of the Maggid, the account of our enslavement and redemption recounted yearly at our seder tables.
The near conclusion of this parshah is also powerful, in a darker way. Here we find the Tochecha echoing the warnings Moses first posed to the Israelites at the end of Leviticus. After stating the rewards accompanying adherence to God's word, Moses described the desolation, despair and dispersion that would be consequent to turning from God's mitzvot. Yearly, these words are read in a rushed undertone, as if openly dwelling upon them might trigger their coming to pass.
However, one could argue that the scene depicted in the middle of the portion is the most gripping. There Moses divides the Israelite tribes into two groups. The first stood atop Mount Gerizim, confirming God's blessings upon the people. The second, perched on Mount Evel, responded "Amen" to each curse . With dramatic staging, Moses contrasted the choices that stood before the people: goodness and life on the one hand, woe and death on the other.
Prior to the division of the tribes, God commanded Moses to inscribe several boulders with words of Torah. Instead of locating the stones on the lush Mount Gerizim, they were placed on the desolate Mount Evel, literally the Peak of Mourning. Why? Perhaps to teach us that, even if gloom cannot be completely banished, Torah can still illumine even the darkest night.
A story from Small Miracles of the Holocaust vividly demonstrates this truth. Auschwitz is perhaps the most infamous town name recorded in Jewish history. Located near the execution camp where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, only small numbers of our people came back to Auschwitz seeking relatives after the war and only one, inexplicably, stayed.
On May 26, 2000, Cracow's Chief Rabbi was notified that that Jew, Shimshon Kluger, had died. While a Jewish cemetery remained in Auschwitz, there were no Jews to bury him and say kaddish; . Then the rabbi remembered: Teens from the Ramaz Day School were nearby on a pilgrimage. The tour leaders were contacted and they prepared the students for the sacred tasks to be performed. The teens ritually prepared and buried Kluger, their acts of chesed bringing the light of the mitzvot into this dark place, their presence demonstrating that Hitler had not won.
During this New Year, may we know the bounty of thanksgiving that inspired our forbears to ascend joyously to God's Holy Temple. And during the inevitable moments of loss that come to us all, may we remember that the light of Torah can illumine even our darkest nights.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham.