Ki Tavo, August 28, 2021
By Julia Knobloch
I recently visited family in Europe for the first time in three years. It was also the first time that I left the city by plane after my arrival at LAX pretty much to the day one year earlier, in the midst of a pandemic that has since somewhat abated but also returned – and had never really left to begin with. In all instances, I prayed that I’d be blessed in my going and in my coming.
The Jewish year is going out and a new one is coming, while the secular year continues. This Elul, I have been reflecting a lot on purposes and meanings of my own comings and goings, of my leaving New York and arriving in LA, of this one first year of Rabbinical School; whether I’m on a linear or cyclical journey, what is ending, what is continuing, what is beginning, again.
Judaism is all about cycles – for example, every seven years we have a Shmita year. Every 49 years a Yovel. And every year we’re being asked to imagine what it means to return to the days of old. In fact, what DOES it mean? Are we going forward or backward — eastward yet onward?
On a personal level, I’m old enough to notice that elements of my life keep repeating themselves. This past year DID bring many firsts — but I — and maybe some of you, too — often experience situations as if I were in a wheel, in a galgal. I’ll come back to that word in a bit.
One reason why I didn’t go to JTS was that I wanted to start this new chapter in a place where nobody knew me and I didn’t know anybody. But soon after coming here, many things seemed familiar, the clean slate sprinkled. The same hopes and disenchantments, the same systems to work. The same characters, if with different faces and different names. Certain conversations reoccurred on the same date as they had before. Chapters I thought had been closed back east were re-opened here, and closed again, with the same ending.
Probably it’s the poet, the former documentary filmmaker in me, who likes to assign significance and meaning to what others would call haphazardness, coincidence, not surprising. I ask myself: Am I coming or am I going? Have I been here before? Where am I headed? And: When are we all an archetype of sorts, and when are we living our own specific lives?
One famous line that we encounter often at synagogue entrances or in the Traveler’s Prayer stems from this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo.
בָּר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בְּבֹאֶ֑ךָ וּבָר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בְּצֵאתֶֽךָ׃
Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.
The Israelites are about to enter, to come into, the Land of Canaan. Moses is instructing the people how to behave, whom to worship – because there are consequences to following or not following the laws of God. In a memorable scene, half of the tribes stand on Mount Ebal and the other on Mount Gerizim, while the Levites proclaim the curses and blessings that can befall or benefit the people, depending on their choice of action. And one is the above quoted line.
Commentators give us a variety of interpretations for what this coming and going could refer to: Rashi’s idea is that it refers to dying and being birthed free from sin, Chizkuni’s take is that it must refer to going to and returning from war, and Ibn Ezra’s opinion is that it refers to basically everything, that it encompasses all our mundane routines, our daily businesses, our flying to Europe and landing safely back at LAX.
Arguably, there are two archetypical cornerstones to our Jewish trajectory – the ONE GOING: the Exodus, and the ONE COMING: Entering the Land.
The latter, which is about to happen in Tanach, the crossing of the Jordan (with echoes from crossing the Yam Suf), is not the first time that our ancestors enter that same land. Abraham and Jacob came and went and came again until Jacob, as it says in Parshat Yaveshev, was settled in the land where his fathers had sojourned and that his family will leave again — until the return of the Israelites after 400 years: Now.
Rashi describes the events leading to that very moment, when Jacob dwells in the land, as “turnings,” “rollings”: gilgulei — as a cycle, a wheel of coming and going — a magal, a circle, gagal, a wheel. Gilgal!
Gilgal is the name of the place where the Israelites encamp after crossing the Jordan and where they erect a monument of 12 stones with the words of the Torah inscribed on them: A spiral-like structure at the end of a non-linear journey that had but one delineated destination.
What does it mean to come to a place, knowing we might have to leave it again? Like we came to the place of vaccines and the promise of a summer in Israel, an unmasked semester start, carefree mingling inside the synagogue building, promising projects and new or reawakened friendships, only to experience it all move out of (close) reach again.
In times like these, when we begin again knowing that certain things will repeat themselves or end — when we return to the days of a new normal that doesn’t feel new anymore — it is important to reflect on the reassuring patterns, on the wheels that keep us going, and on what we imagine as the delineated destinations of our lives. Is only linear success a manifestation of being blessed? Or can we find blessings in our comings and goings, turnings and returns, in “a field of hills and of depressions”? Or, in reference to the book of Deuteronomy we’re in: Can we repeat and revise at the same time? What lessons do we learn from Heshbon HaNefesh?
Those may be questions better asked of Kohelet on Sukkot, but Elul sets the tone for our long, yearly journey of returning, so I wanted to invite us to think about what we, individually and as a community, want to do with 5782 (and a continuing 2021):
From where are we setting out and to where do we hope to return?
What will we count as blessings?
What are you going to inscribe onto your personal stone monument after crossing the Jordan?