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Inclusion Shabbat 5774


Parshat Ki Tavo – Inclusion Shabbat 5774

Rabbi Dr. Meir Sendor

The focus of our Shabbat, this Shabbat, is Inclusion, sponsored by our Shul together with Yachad. And we are pleased to have with us Shelley Cohen, founder and director of the Jewish Inclusion Project together with Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad,  both active advocates for the inclusion of children with disabilities in Jewish educational and recreational environments. Shelly will be speaking at 5:30 this afternoon. Her topic is – “Blow the Shofar for Inclusion: how a communal inclusion committee can affect the teshuvah process.” This is a timely and urgent issue for all of us in this Season of Tshuvah.

I want to locate this principle of Inclusion in its Torah context.  Inclusion is not a principle that comes under the heading of Gemilut Hesed, as if it is an act of extra kindness and pity to be thoughtful and considerate about those with disabilities and challenges in their lives and make sure that the social and physical environment supports and includes their needs. Inclusion is Tzedek, Justice, which the Rambam defines as “granting to everyone who has a right to something, that to which they have a right and giving to every being that which corresponds to their merits,” a responsibility of respect to others that is an obligation of moral virtue (Moreh Nevukhim 3:53). Inclusion is Tzedek, Justice. Inclusion is Kavod Ha-Briyot, to respect and honor others as children of God, as Tzelem E-lokim. It is not about pity over victimhood. It is about the Honor of Human Dignity. Inclusion calls for sensitivity, but it is not sensitivity that is lifnim meshurat ha-din, it is Din.

We can get the contrast clearly from this week’s parsha and the way a well-known key phrase is traditionally interpreted, versus what it means in peshat. When someone has first fruits of their harvest to celebrate, of one of the seven special fruits of EY -- grapes, figs, olives, dates, pomegranates along with wheat and barley --  they bring them to the kohanim in the Mikdash in a festive ceremony that includes a Viduy Bikkurim, a formal acknowledgement, stated out loud, that puts this first fruit in the context of all of Jewish history and Jewish destiny. (Boy, we never do anything simply, do we? It’s just a fig – but actually it’s not – it’s a precious fruit of the Land of Israel!) So we recite a narrative that gives the back story to appreciate how this fruit got here: the story of the origins of Am Yisrael and the fulfillment of the promise of Erez Yisrael – and this fruit exemplifies this fulfilled promise!

This Viduy Bikkurim begins:

דברים פרק כו פסוק ה

וענית ואמרת לפני יקוק אלהיך ארמי אבד אבי וירד מצרימה ויגר שם במתי מעט ויהי שם לגוי גדול עצום ורב:

We’re all very familiar with this. It was included in the Haggadah shel Pesach, since it is an eloquent summary of the entire Sippur Yeziyat Mizrayim, the narrative of the Egyptian enslavement and Exodus. And the Haggadah also includes the rabbinic interpretation of this Viduy based mostly on the Midrash Sifrei, including the famous perush of the first line:

רמב"ם הלכות חמץ ומצה נוסח ההגדה

צא ולמד מה בקש לבן הארמי לעשות ליעקב אבינו, שפרעה הרשע לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ולבן בקש לעקור את הכל, שנאמר +דברים כ"ו+ ארמי אובד אבי

Arami Oveid Avi is interpreted: An Aramean (Lavan)… destroyed (Oveid) … my Father (Yaakov). This perush became so popular that most meforshim only bring this, and people think that’s what this verse is about, and it’s already in Targum Onkelos. But it’s not peshat, it’s a clever Rabbinic pun on the words –  it’s not the plain and contextual sense of the pasuk. It has nothing to do with Viduy Bikkurim.  It’s the Rashbam, the great pashtan, Rashi’s grandson, who reminds us what this verse really and originally means:

רשב"ם דברים פרשת כי תבוא פרק כו פסוק ה

(ה) ארמי אובד אבי - אבי אברהם ארמי היה, אובד וגולה מארץ ארם. כדכת' לך לך מארצך... לשון אובד ותועה אחד הם באדם הגולה,... כלומר מארץ נכריה באו אבותינו לארץ הזאת ונתנה הקדוש ברוך הוא לנו:

“My father Avraham was an Aramean, a wanderer and exile from the land of Aram, as it says ‘Go forth from your land…’ The term oveid and to’eh are synonymous, meaning wander, referring to a person who is exiled… That is to say: from a strange land our forefathers came to this Land, which the Holy One, blessed be He, gave to us.”

And it makes a difference how this verse is interpreted. According to the Sifrei and the Haggadah and Onkelos and most of the meforshim, this phrase from the Confession of First Fruits, Arami Oveid Avi,  is about Victimhood. We were oppressed and nearly destroyed by Lavan, we were oppressed and nearly destroyed by Paro the Egyptians, and in every generation we are victims of one or another oppressor:

היא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו, שלא אחד בלבד עמד עלינו אלא בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו והקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם.

“ … in every generation they rise against us to destroy us and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And it’s this narrative of Victimhood that is picked up and inculcated by so many meforshim, and has become so much a part of our self-understanding as Jews. It’s not like it isn’t based in fact – we have been oppressed through much of our history. Today, even our enemies have picked up this narrative, probably from us. The Palestinians are really great at playing the Victim – much better than we are. They see that Victimhood seems to draw pity from Western societies and confers a halo of holiness, so they play it for all it’s worth.

But Victimhood is ultimately a self-defeating attitude to take in the face of oppression and trouble. It’s passive, sometimes passive-aggressive, it’s resentful.  It shifts blame to others, it robs a person of their dignity and autonomy and power and responsibility – and it’s not the only response and attitude you can take in the face of trouble. I don’t mean to criticize a Rabbinic perush that has become so popular and so much a part of the fabric of our Jewish identity,  but I think even the Rabbis who came up with the perush didn’t expect it to get the kind of publicity it gets in the Haggadah.

That’s why it’s so important that the Rashbam reminds us what the phrase really means and what it really says about Jewish identity. Arami   Oveid   Avi – a Wandering Aramean was my father Avraham.

The Rambam in Hilkhot Tshuvah lists Galus, wandering in Exile, as a path of Tshuvah:

רמב"ם הלכות תשובה פרק ב הלכה ד

מדרכי התשובה להיות השב …גולה ממקומו, שגלות מכפרת עון מפני שגורמת לו להכנע ולהיות עניו ושפל רוח.

“Among the paths of Tshuvah is that the repentant person be exiled from his place, for wandering in exile cleanses sin, because it causes a person to be humble and modest and low of spirit.”

So a person who brings First Fruits makes a declaration, reciting the core narrative of Jewish identity:  I am bringing first fruits from the Land of Israel in gratefulness to Ha-Shem, because my Father Avraham was wanderer from Aram, from what is today northern Syria, he was not from here. He had no claim to this Land. He was a wanderer and an exile. He had no sense of entitlement, he was not proud or arrogant, he had no sense of ownership. He was grateful for whatever was given him. He was a person who knew about struggle and hardship, which taught him to be a person with an open heart, whose travelling tent was open on all sides. His struggles in life did not reduce him to victimhood, they ennobled him to feel common cause with all who struggle with challenges, to feel sensitivity for others and to always find ways to help and defend others. This is our heritage – we are children of a wanderer, we know the soul of the wanderer, and we feel kinship with all who wander and struggle in life. And so the first fruits that we bring are hard-earned and deeply appreciated – and we acknowledge that we do not own them, and we are giving them away to others. This is the Viduy Bikkurim.

And this is the place of Inclusion in Torah and in Jewish Life. It’s not an extra Gemilut Hesed for which you can pat yourself on your head.  It’s our core narrative, it’s what we are about.

Inclusion is not about pity or compassion or romanticized kindness. It’s clear vision: about Kavod and truthfully seeing the inner strength and beauty and infinite value of every human being. It’s a Big Tent, completely open, sharing together,  the gifts HKBH gives us, as the Viduy Bikkurim concludes:

דברים פרק כו פסוק יא

ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך יקוק אלהיך ולביתך אתה והלוי והגר אשר בקרבך: ס

And ultimately inclusion is the vision of the Moshiach himself, of whom the Navi Yeshayahu says:

ישעיהו פרק נג פסוק ג

נבזה וחדל אישים איש מכאבות וידוע חלי וכמסתר פנים ממנו נבזה ולא חשבנהו:

 “a man of pains, who knows illness…” who comes to include and gather all human beings to HKBH, as he says:

ישעיהו פרק נו

כי ביתי בית תפלה יקרא לכל העמים:

(ח) נאם אדני יקוק מקבץ נדחי ישראל עוד אקבץ עליו לנקבציו:

“… For My house is a house of prayer for all peoples, says Ha-Shem, gatherer of the dispersed of Israel – I will gather even more to those who are gathered.” Speedily, in our days.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784