Why is this so hard to remember sometimes? I mean, it says so, right there in the text, what our priorities should be: When you get to the land, create a holy society. Be good to each other. Treat the vulnerable with care.
And oh yes….remember where you came from.
In Ki Tavo, as we get closer to the very end of Devarim, and the end of the Torah (well, does it really end? No. So, shall we say, as we get near to the end of the 5th book), we read about what we’re supposed to do when we get to the Land. Now, since it talks about bringing the first fruits, clearly that doesn’t happen on the first day, right after unpacking and the boxes aren’t put away yet. I mean, the crops have to be planted, and tended, and then harvested and then brought to the place where we’re told to go.
But, when that first crop is harvested, we are told to say the following, as we offer up the basket of food, “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. …Adonai freed us from Egypt….and brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 26:5-9)
See? First things first – remember that you are in this place by the grace of God, and that you know what it’s like to be oppressed and treated badly. Don’t forget this, because it is so easy, among all that milk and honey. It’s easy to forget that you weren’t the first people there, that you came into a land that was settled by others, and that your presence there has to be a holy one.
In the next chapter, Moses exhorts the people to stay true to the Instruction. As soon as you get in the Land, set up holy places. Establish the holiness in the place. And then, gather the community together and speak aloud all the things you must do. Don’t insult your parents. Don’t move your countryman’s landmark (i.e. respect boundaries!) Don’t misdirect a blind person. Don’t subvert the rights of the vulnerable. Respect family relationships. Don’t accept bribes when a person’s life is at stake. And to each of these, the people are to respond, “Amen!” It’s a community buy-in.
If this land is to be truly holy, then we need to get back to these precepts, and hold fast to them. The land is only holy when we bring holiness to it, and Ki Tavo tells us exactly how to do it. Who is listening today? Bringing holiness into the land isn’t about creating division and intolerance, or tossing aside the law to gain a temporary advantage over another. The opposite! Bringing holiness into the land is about remembering what it was like to struggle, what it was like when family relationships were discarded, what it was like to have bribery and dishonor, and discarding the rights of the weak. If we don’t do that, well….it’s not a holy land, it’s just land, and it’s land that sees fighting and hatred and destruction.
In the wilderness, what made the sand (chol, the Hebrew word) holy was what took place on it. One patch of sand was no different than another out there, yet our weekly Havdalah blessings tell us to make a distinction between “kodesh” (holy) and “chol.” Chol doesn’t mean profane, it just means ordinary, regular sand. What made the other sand/chol holy was what happened on it – the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. If the Land today is to be kodesh, holy things have to happen on it. Otherwise, it’s just sand.