The sidra begins with the instructions for what will happen when the Israelites enter the land (Ki Tavo) and Moses commands that the people will bring their first fruits (bikkurim) to the priests at the Temple each year, and will acknowledge God’s role in providing the food. The ritual includes a verse that is very familiar to us from the Seder – “A wandering Aramean was my father...” Then follows another ritual commandment – that of tithing, in which the people, having given the tithe to the Levites, the strangers orphans and widows in order that they would eat, will say “I have done according to all the commandments God has commanded me”.
This is followed by the commandment that the people are to inscribe torah onto twelve large stones which will be set up on Mount Ebal. As the people pass over the Jordan and enter the land in the valley between Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal, the tribes will divide, representatives of six to stand on Mr Gerizim and six on Mt Ebal, and the Priests will stand in the valley with the Ark of the Covenant. A list of curses that will befall people who ignore the commandments, and a list of blessings that will be given to those who fulfil them are recited as the people enter the land, and all the people will have to listen and respond. Thus is the covenant reaffirmed as the people enter the land of Israel, and the place of God and the commandments is established.
The portion concludes with the beginning of Moses’ final speech. He looks back over the last forty years of God looking after the people, the miracles God did for them, and finishes with the reminder to observe God’s commandments.
The two rituals at the beginning of the sidra are interesting for a number of reasons – the first because they actively involve the Israelites in affirming the covenant relationship with God, and also because they allow them to rehearse and participate in the history of the Jewish people. From being a passive recipient of God’s goodness and Moses’ leadership, they begin to be responsible for their own religious identity.
Two other phrases stand out for me in this sidra – “you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God” (27:7) and “Keep silence and hear Israel, today you have become a people to the Eternal your God” (27:9)
In his speech to the people about their entering the land, Moses uses a variety of techniques to get his message across – the message that they are dependent upon God, that they are required to follow the commandments or God will turn away from them, the importance of remembering the Covenant and following the path of right behaviour. Carrot and stick come to mind. But embedded in all of this is the message that now the people are growing up religiously, that their behaviour is becoming their own responsibility, that the lessons of their history must be used into their future, and most of all that religious responsibility and covenantal relationship with God is not punitive or a burden, but it is something that causes simchah – joy.
They are now a people, they have obligations to look after each other, they have the support of each other looking after them too. Most importantly, religious life is not about being alone, or about seeking the best for oneself, it is about being in relationship with others and with God. We are now very close to Rosh Hashanah. Each of us is responsible for our own lives and how we are living them. And each of us is responsible for each other – none of us are alone, all of us are part of the Covenant, and this is a not to be experienced as a burden but as a joy.