On my third trip back into the house to retrieve a forgotten item on the first day of school this year, the anxiety of the morning rush was mounting. Mask? Check! Wait, did you pack extra ones? No. Go back and get them. Start the car. Wait mom, I left the package of wipes on the dresser. Fine, I’ll wait, go back. Start the engine again, only to realize that though we packed lunch, we did not pack a breakfast for my high schooler. Then comes the complete change in routine: remember, you have to enter school from the other door. And don’t forget to sanitize your hands. And stay with your class-group. Don’t forget to clean your desk before you eat. And sanitize your hands when you go into class. And so it went until finally, we were able to pull out of the driveway. Clearly, this year would be a year like no other. Every year since my children were in preschool, the first day of the school year was a mix of excitement and anxiety, but this year brought those sentiments to a whole new level.
Parashat Ki Tavo begins with a beautiful description of the ceremony of the bikurim, the offering of the first fruit. “You shall take the first of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that G-d your Lord is giving you. You will place it in a basket, and go to the site that G-d will choose, to rest his name there.” (Devarim:26:2). It is an interesting request, to give the first fruit, as they are not usually the best. Just ask any farmer; the first fruit are sometimes small or even shriveled. Why then bring these “first fruit” to the Temple to honor G-d?
The Hebrew word for the first fruit used here is reshit, reminiscent of Bereshit, the first book of the Torah. Thus reshit implies “beginning”. But why then does G-d want these firsts? The answer lies not in the fruit itself (though it has been expounded elsewhere that the bikurim are to be the best and nicest of the fruit) but rather in the act of offering these firsts at the start of the harvest. The way in which we begin any journey will set the tone for the path it will take. Within the same passage, Rashi turns his attention to the use of the expression “this day” (Devarim 26:16) implying that every day should be new for you, as if we had just received the commandment.
Each new beginning is an opportunity to reflect, to put our best selves forward and to set ourselves up for success. Rabbi Mordechai of Lakhovitz describes the month of Elul as a season of renewal, an opportunity given by G-d to renew ourselves and start again fresh. It is something we do instinctively during the yamim noraim, the days leading up to Yom Kippur. We try to be extra stringent in our conduct and in our observance of mitzvot. These days are not merely the start of the New Year, they are the foundation we lay for the year to come. However, the Torah asks us to go beyond showing our appreciation for these gifts, for the bounty of the harvest. We should not only appreciate the gifts G-d has given us, we have an additional responsibility once the harvest has been collected. We are commanded to offer the poor man’s tithe, to be given to “the stranger, the orphan and the widow.” There is an obligation not just to take for ourselves or to be thankful, but a communal obligation as well. The Rambam explains that anyone who does not observe this communal responsibility in any religious celebration is in violation of the observance (Hilchot Yom Tov).
Lastly, later in the parasha is the tochachah, the reprimand, a series of dire warnings of the consequences of not living according to the words of Hashem. “These are the words of the covenant that Hashem commanded Moshe to seal with the Children of Israel” (Devarim 28:69). Over the years, different customs arose for the reading of this passage in shull, from reading in a hushed voice to some fearing that by listening to the warnings, they might somehow cause these events to come to pass. The Chafetz Chaim denounces these practices as foolish and even a violation of halacha. ”Imagine that someone wishes to warn a traveler to avoid a certain road because it has many dangerous pitfalls, and one can come to great harm on that road. How foolish it would be to refuse to listen to the warning.” The tochachah, he explains, is a warning intended to protect people from harm. Refusing to listen puts the auditor at great risk. Rabbi Abraham Twerski adds that though the tochachah is generally considered a curse, a wise person recognizes it more as a blessing intended to protect the people from the harm that may result from disobeying the Torah. Interestingly, the curses described run parallel to the blessings. In particular, those who do not put the needs of others before their selfish indulgences will be cursed. In the end, when we do not support each other as a community, we become vulnerable.
The theme of communal responsibility is woven throughout the Torah. In fact, a positive collective commandment is to be given priority over a positive individual commandment according to the Talmud (Moed Kattan, 14b). “Kol Israel araivim zeh lazeh”, all Israel is responsible for one another. The Noam Elimelech eloquently connects this phrase to “ki koleich areiv”, for your voice is sweet (Shir Hashirim, 2:14); all Israel sweetens one another.
The start of the 2020-2021 school year is most definitely the beginning of a new journey. For many, it is one filled with anxiety and trepidation. Armed with medical information and ministry directives, we, at school, are all forging ahead, trying to set the tone and lay the foundation for a healthy a safe new year, filled with learning, with excitement and with happy and healthy children. But all the work the school does is for naught if we, as a community, do not also do our part. We need to be conscious of the effect and the consequences of our actions outside of school, when interacting with others, when attending gatherings. We need to be vigilant about taking the time to do our daily health checks, to wear our masks and keep our hands clean.
New beginnings are hard, but they are also an opportunity. The path is not written. There is no copy paste. It is about forging into the unknown equipped with warnings and some knowledge. But now, more than ever, we need to be conscious of the impact of our actions on the community as a whole. If everyone does their part, this year may just be one of the sweetest yet.
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School