Some might say it is a coincidence of our calendar that this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, is read just before the High Holidays. Yet one of the axioms of studying Torah is that there are no coincidences.
Even the most minute laws contained in this week’s reading have important things to teach us about teshuvah — the “turning” of our hearts and minds that is the goal of the High Holiday season.
At the beginning of the reading, we learn of the ritual of the first fruits that the people are to bring to the Temple when they inhabit the land of Israel. They are to gather these fruits, the first to sprout in the land, and bring them from their fields to God’s house, offering them before God. But, of course, they, like we, cannot see God.So the people are to offer the fruits and express their gratitude for the harvest before God’s representative, “the Priest who shall be in those days” [Deuternomy 26:3].
In fact, without interacting with the Priest, the people cannot fulfill this mitzvah of first fruits at all.
Rashi is particularly interested by the words that describe the Priest — “who shall be in those days.” Of course, the people have to offer the first fruits before the Priest who is there in their time and not another! So why does the Torah specify this unnecessarily?
Rashi explains that the Torah is teaching us something about the qualities of the Priest. He writes, “You have none but the Priest in your days, as he is.”
In other words, the Priest may or may not be learned, worthy or pure enough to serve in this capacity as a stand-in for God. He may not be a perfect person who can, in God’s name, accept the offerings and the gratitude of the people.
And yet the people must still turn to him, must still make their offerings, must still say the words prescribed in the Torah for this moment. They need this imperfect Priest in order to move forward in their own lives.
We, too, have a mitzvah to fulfill this time of year — the mitzvah of teshuvah, turning back toward God. And we, too, cannot see God. So we, too, need the help of other human beings to make our turning effective. These other human beings who surround us, our friends, family, neighbors, teachers and students — they, like the Priest, may not be perfect, just as we are far from perfect.
Yet without their help, we cannot fulfill the mitzvah of turning at all. Like the ancient Israelites, we need each other in all of our imperfections in order to be able to declare our gratitude for the past year and our renewed intentions for the future.
During this time before the High Holidays, we first turn inward and do heshbon hanefesh — the “accounting of the soul” — inwardly examining our actions and our thoughts in order to lead ourselves toward repentance. But we cannot stop there. We then need to turn outwards, to those others who surround us, in order to gain their forgiveness, to gain a second chance with them, and to get the opportunity to demonstrate a change in ourselves.
Only through our interactions with others — imperfect like ourselves — can we truly hope to move toward repentance and renewal in the year ahead.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu — may you have a year of sweetness, happiness, health and peace.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre. Email him at: [email protected]