Parshat Ki Tavo: As Is Holiness

Parts of my family got together in my backyard last week for a socially distanced Friday night Shabbat meal.  Things were so different and yet so beautifully the same.  I have a basket filled with kippahs that is available to anyone who would like a kippah but hasn’t brought their own.  The basket has memories of simchas, family moments embossed on the kippah with the names and dates and labels of milestones gone by.  If I dig through that basket, I can find kippahs from friends’ weddings, family bnei mitzvahs –I dare say my own wedding kippah might be buried somewhere deep inside that basket.  When babies are born into the family we put some of their tiny hats into the basket so they can likewise have a ‘head covering’ for singing on Friday nights.  The basket is filled with various colours, textures, sizes and designs.  I learned this from my mother who has a similar kippah bag in her home –huge amount of choices in my mother’s kippah bag!  

But more choice is not necessarily better.

Whenever my extended family would get together at my mother’s for a Shabbat or holiday meal, the kippah bag would get passed around and the ‘shopping’ would begin.  I would watch each person put their hand into the narrow opening of the bag and pull out a kippah they didn’t like.  It might be the colour, the texture or even the embossed message inside that would make that person decide to put the kippah back and choose another.  By the time the bag made its way around (about 40ish people), everyone was getting a bit ‘hangry’ and starting to snip at each other about why it’s taking so long.  Toward the end of the process, people would just give out head coverings to the people around them to speed things up (funny how personal liberties get limited when people get hungry).  In the end, half the room had lovely kippahs on their heads and the other half had quirky caps, children’s hats that didn’t fit or tiny infant kippahs with the laces hanging down on each side.   We eventually had to institute the sage advice we learn in kindergarten: ‘You get what you get and you don’t get upset’ –first kippah you touch is the one you wear and no one’s allowed to judge you.

It’s not that there aren’t good choices in the kippah basket, it’s that we’re tempted to think there are somehow always better choices in there, we just have to exhaust the possibilities.  This can often become our approach to life.

The obvious downside to all of this is that the search will never end.  It is impossible to exhaust every possibility of anything, and we can fall into a life perspective of continuous searching with no arrivals.  This week’s Torah portion is named Ki Tavo, translated as ‘When you arrive’.  It contains all of Moses’ warnings to Israel about their behaviour once he’s gone.  It is filled with a short list of blessings and a really long list of curses (Covid is still with us so no need to dwell on the curses right now).  Interestingly, when discussing building an altar ‘once we arrive’ in Israel, the text forces us to scale down not up.

The altar is to be built by our hands with any tools we may need, excluding any tool made of iron.  Iron is for weaponry, and so it should never be used to create sacred altars which are meant for building peace.  War doesn’t create peace, peace is what happens in the absence of war.

The altar should be built using stones we find, not stones we fashion.  We are forbidden to hew the stones to fit each other, we need to figure out how to fill the gaps created when the stones don’t fit each other.  In other words, don’t create false conformity, learn to value the distinctiveness of each piece and how to join them effectively without changing them. Holiness is created when each part is allowed to remain its authentic self.

Through the simplest of restrictions, the Torah has shown us that any object lying around us daily can transform when we see its potential.  There is holiness within something when we recognize that its utility is speaking to its beauty which builds into its connection to other objects –when we see their value ‘as is’ (how interesting that the retail phrase ‘as is’ means an object is somehow less than it should be but we accept it and buy it in its diminished form, directly opposite to the Torah’s lesson here).

‘When we arrive’ somewhere is when we can look at what we have around us and recognize that it is simultaneously ‘as is’ and ‘as it could be’.  The journey is the search, the arrival is when my hands build–knowing I have everything I need by just looking around.

With Rosh Hashannah approaching, and many of us finding ourselves creating holy spaces in our homes, unable to go to shul, the powerful message of building an altar speaks with such relevance.  Finding the things around us that suddenly become beautiful in their mundane distinctiveness and the way they fit together to represent who we are.  

We don’t need more objects to choose from to create holiness in our homes, we know how to do this with what we have. We somehow all knew to fill a basket with kippahs of memories, or a drawer, or a bag.  Each of our homes have everything we need to create the holiness we all intuitively understood lies within us and all around.