Reflections – Ki Tavo
Hartman argues that ‘the enterprise of building and maintaining Jewish collective identity is exceptionally complex.
By Marc Shoffren
There is something wonderfully intriguing about the tithing declaration at the start of Ki Tavo: ‘Bi’arti ha’kodesh min-habayit… I have put away the holy things from my house’ (26:13). There is something equally captivating and powerful about the stones which the Israelites are mandated to set up when they cross the Jordan river, something definitive about plastering rocks and writing laws on them, as the Torah expects in this parasha. The stones create both a physical and an ideological boundary. They mark the entrance to the land and declare that the society has a code, a set of laws which are ‘ba’er heitev’, proclaimed clearly so that they are understood by all.
As humans we are proficient at creating boundaries. The setting of rules creates boundaries; it delineates social environment as much as the stones delineate physical space. ‘Be quiet and listen, Israel,’ the text tells us, ‘today you have become a people to Adonai, your God.’ By setting parameters we create community, and within community we can become people of God. Boundaries, the Torah tells us, are something to pay attention to.
As the early part of Ki Tavo makes clear, unclear boundaries can be dangerous. In the passage ‘Arami oved avi…’, a section of text we recite as part of the Pesach seder, the Israelites remind themselves of the price to be paid for transgressing boundaries: My father was a wanderer who strayed into the land of another and experienced the consequences, the text declares, and only through God did we find salvation.
According to the teacher and thinker Donniel Hartman, Jewish communities continually need to delineate the acceptable. Hartman argues that ‘the enterprise of building and maintaining Jewish collective identity is exceptionally complex. It requires boundary policies of special sensitivity and adeptness.’ We need boundaries in order to preserve a sense of who we are, but like the plastered and painted stones, those boundaries need to be refreshed to remain relevant to the community.
The tithing declaration is also about maintaining and remembering boundaries. After the declarant has stated that they have donated the required tenth, the tithe, the declaration continues: ‘I haven’t transgressed your mitzvot and I haven’t forgotten them…’ (26:13). Communities, whether synagogues, schools, workplaces or families, require us to set and maintain clear boundaries, boundaries which need to be explained in ways that mean all involved can understand them, and which need regularly revisiting so that they stay in our memories.
In part, that is the effect of the process we will shortly engage in. Underlying the individual journeys we make over Tishrei, there is a process of collective boundary maintenance. Whilst we determine our own spiritual and moral pathways for the coming year, we have the opportunity to revisit and to reflect on the boundary markers of our communal life. As we cross the boundary from the old year into the new we can take a cue from Hartman and ask how appropriate our boundaries are for the diverse needs of our communities.