Elul is our month for exploring possibilities for change, for increasing our generosity, for reclaiming our connection to and responsibility for building healthy communities
Ki Tavo begins with the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah. The Israelites are coming to the end of their wilderness journey and are preparing to enter the land of Canaan. Every year, we read this portion as we make our way through the month of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah.
This is our month of teshuvah, a month of turning inward, a month of introspection, a month when we begin the process of forgiving ourselves and others. One tradition teaches that the month of Elul, and the 10 days of Tishrei from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, are days of forgiveness because the Israelites built the Golden Calf in their impatience for Moses’ return from the mountain. Moses ascended Mount Sinai a second time on the first day of Elul. Forty days later, on Yom Kippur, Moses descended from the mountain carrying a second set of tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
An unconventional reading of Ki Tavo may open new paths for our teshuvah, for our journey to forgiveness.
The portion begins: “When you enter the land that your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land … ” If we read “the land that your God is giving you” as “the year that your God is giving you,” we may discover a unique and valuable directive.
What might it mean for us to offer “a first fruit” as we enter a new year? This is usually understood as an offering of agricultural bounty, underscoring the connection between the land’s fertility and the gratitude of those who plant, till and harvest the land. Most of us who read this portion today are not farmers, so this portion challenges us to consider how we express gratitude.
The text continues, “You shall then recite … before your God: ‘My ancestors, wandering Arameans, went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number. They became a great nation, mighty and many. The Egyptians oppressed us and afflicted us, and placed hard servitude upon us. We cried out to the God of our ancestors … the Holy One heard our voice … saw our affliction, our strain, and our oppression, and … took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm … ’ ”
Instead of castigating ourselves and those who came before us for ingratitude or selfishness, Elul is our month for exploring possibilities for change, for increasing our generosity, for reclaiming our connection to and responsibility for building healthy communities. If we forgive ourselves and our parents and teachers for our human failings, we open ourselves to the possibility of a healthier, more whole, more holy new year.
During this month of Elul, may each of us consider how we can offer our fruits to the communities in which we live, where too many continue to suffer indignity and dehumanization. We can express our gratitude to memory’s challenge by contributing to a world where we and others can begin again, begin anew, with hope. By forgiving ourselves and others, we can turn toward teshuvah, renewing our commitment to work toward a world of greater justice, a world of increased peace.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the editor of The Open Door Haggadah, serves as a spiritual director in Philadelphia. She is also a co-editor of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives.