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Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Sometimes it seems that the fast-approaching High Holy Days come way too early. The waning days of summer are still warm and inviting, kids are just starting back to school, gardens still need tending and harvesting—who has time to focus on repentance and Judgment Day when our days here on earth are so full of life and activity? Who can engage wholeheartedly in an introspective process of soul-searching when everything around us lures us towards outward, life-affirming exuberance? It’s as if the Universe conspires to make it nearly impossible for us to be really present to the depth of inner work that the High Holy Days demand of us.

This week’s Torah portion brings this dichotomy into sharp focus. The text includes a series of blessings and curses, of great light and great shadow. Blessings and light will come if we engage in the spiritual work that God places before us; curses and darkness will befall us if we collapse into an unconscious way of life. However, despite this highly contrasted picture, a verse in the middle of the portion opens it up for a more nuanced interpretation:

If you listen—listen—to the voice of the Eternal One your God…. (Deut. 28:1)

Our rabbis teach us that when a word is repeated in Torah, its meaning holds special significance. A writer in Midrash responds to this doubling of the word “listen” by stating, “Happy is the one whose listenings are to Me…” (Devarim Rabbah 7:2). In truth, God never stops speaking; it is we who are unprepared, unavailable, to receive and listen to the “voice of the Eternal.” We delineate times when we are to be “spiritual,” and we habitually go unconscious outside of these designated times. Our “listening” tends to happen only during what we define as “holy times.” And it is true that we perk up our ears at these intentional times of listening. Yet there is another type of listening to which we can learn to attune ourselves: the listening that reaches us during our most mundane moments. The Chasidic Rabbi Yehuda Leib taught that “everything… was created by God’s utterance and has the power of divine speech hidden within it. This is the hidden light that we are told to find.”

God is talking to us at our end-of-summer barbecues, in the midst of the busy-ness of our lives, in every moment, in every conversation, through every emotion and every person. God is talking to us in those bright, late-summer days as we are basking in the blessings of our life, when it is so easy to go unconscious. God is calling us, time and again, to remember who we truly are: holy beings, the very expression of Divine Light itself; to remember, as well, that every moment is an expression of that Divine Light.

And so, maybe the fact that the High Holy Days sometimes come so early, when we are so busy with barbecues and back-to-school shopping, offers us an opportunity to explore the ways we tend to separate the holy from the mundane and to reclaim the holiness of every ordinary moment in our life. Perhaps our inner inventory in preparation for the High Holy Days could start with making a list of all our blessings, and progress to becoming more attentive listeners to the Divine Presence, to God’s voice as we partake of all the ordinary offerings of the season. When we become available to hear the voice of God permeating those ordinary moments, we truly open ourselves up to live a transformative extra-ordinary life. What better resolution could we make for the coming New Year?!