Raising the Bar

Ki Tavo By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Sep 24, 2005 / 5765

Parashat Ki Tavo showcases the creativity of the rabbinic sages and offers a unique challenge to enhance our Jewish learning. The Torah reading opens with a declaration that each farmer had to say when he brought the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple, giving gratitude for the fruit, and ultimately recognizing the God who made his livelihood possible. The Israelite would recite a lengthy passage, a synopsis of Jewish history, beginning, “A wandering Aramean was my father” and ending, “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26:5–10).

Originally, all who knew how to recite the passage in Hebrew did so, but if someone did not know how to recite it (because he or she did not know Hebrew or could not memorize it), a Kohen (priest) recited it, and he or she repeated it. But people who did not know how to speak Hebrew were embarrassed and stopped making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Therefore, the sages decreed that everyone, whether they knew Hebrew or not, would repeat the passage after the Kohen (Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7).

It was a courageous move of the sages to try to make the observance more accessible, and not to have people feel embarrassed or awkward about participating in ritual life.

Indeed, it takes great knowledge, experience, and practice to become an insider. We all can remember an occasion when we didn’t understand a Yiddish joke, sat through an incomprehensible service, or made a faux pas at a Shabbat table, and wished it all were easier. Jewish institutions and educators have made great strides to bring knowledge of our heritage to the people. English translations of the Talmud, transliterations of the Haggadah, books, websites, and introduction to Judaism classes have all provided unprecedented access to the sources of our tradition for a non-Hebrew-speaking audience. At the same time, however, Judaic educational expectations are regrettably low: You can’t sit through the service? We’ll make it shorter. You don’t know Hebrew? We’ll make it in English.

Along with the efforts at bringing Judaism to the people, it is vitally important to invest in bringing the people to Judaism — raising the bar of knowledge. Advanced classes in Talmud offered alongside the introductory classes, efforts to learn Hebrew for prayer, interaction with Israelis, and perhaps even assembling a pledge card for engaging in serious Jewish learning this coming year are all examples of how we can raise educational expectations within the Jewish community.

The Sages did what was necessary in their times; we follow their example, ironically, by doing the opposite in our times.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.