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Torah Sparks

September 17, 2011 – 18 Elul 5771

Annual: Deut. 26:1 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial: Deut. 26:1 – 27:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1161; Hertz p. 874)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

The Israelites are commanded to present the first fruits of their produce to the Priest at God’s chosen shrine. The worshipper is then to recite a declaration familiar to modern Jews from the Passover Haggadah: “Arami oved avi… My ancestor was a wandering Aramean…” This recitation of Israelite origins represents the very first scripted liturgy for Jewish worship and reflects our liturgy’s emphasis on historical experience. A prescribed verbal declaration, including a request for God’s blessing (“from your holy abode, from heaven”) similarly accompanies the tithe that Israelites provide for the support of Levites and strangers, widows and orphans.

The Israelites are admonished once again to be faithful to God and God’s commandments; God’s reciprocal devotion to His chosen people is assured.

When they will cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, Israel is commanded to erect stone pillars, coated with plaster, on which God’s laws are to be inscribed. These steles are to be dedicated with sacrifices to be offered on an altar of unhewn stone that the Israelites are instructed to build on Mount Ebal.

Israel prepares for the recitation of blessings and curses. (The ceremonious presentation was prescribed earlier, in parashat Re’eh.) The tribes of Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are assigned to Mount Gerezim for the blessing; Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to be present on Mount Ebal for the curses. Twelve specific sins (some would say, eleven specific sins and a final, generalized description of sin) are detailed, identified as worthy of being cursed, and individually acknowledged as such by a collective, national “Amen.” Offenses of cultic, sexual, moral, and violent character are included among these execrable sins.

Blessings for compliance with God’s commandments are given: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country, Blessed shall be the issue of your womb. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail.” (This last blessing customarily is repeated on Rosh Hashanah eve.) These are followed by a further statement of largely parallel curses for Israelite disobedience to God: “Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb.” Thi passage, called the tochechah exhortation, includes particularly vile curses: “Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky. The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil scars. madness, blindness, and dismay.” Remarkably, the Torah reader customarily substitutes prescribed euphemism for the harshest of the Hebrew terms! So feared was this scriptural passage, nevertheless, that some communities have a history of skipping the section entirely. Others have required the Torah reader or shamas to accept this aliyah as a condition of employment. Still others, instead of assigning so unseemly a text as a Torah “honor,” simply announced “Yaamod mi she-yirtzeh” – “Let whoever wants it come forward!” In any case, it is common to read these verses quickly and quietly, dispensing with so unpleasant a text with all possible dispatch.

The parashah concludes with a firm admonition (for those who missed the message in the previous section!?) faithfully to adhere to God’s covenant, and to recognize in Israel’s historic experience God’s miraculous guidance and beneficent, providential care.

Theme #1: “Yes, Rev. Spooner, It Would be Curse”

“Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them. – And all the people shall say, Amen.” Deuteronomy 27:26

Study: Derash

“This curse applies to those who say that it is not necessary to observe the commandments of the Lord in practice, claiming that the important thing is that one should understand their meaning and that one should be good in one’s heart, and no more.” Ketav Sofer

“Rabbi Assi said in the name of Rabbi Tanchum, the son of Rabbi Chiyya: ‘Even one who studies the law, and teaches, observes, and fulfills it, but fails to avail himself of an opportunity he has to strengthen it, is truly accursed.’” Talmud Yerushalmi, Sotah

“Some people observe the mitzvot with unseemly intentions, so as to make themselves appear to be upright and thought to be trustworthy, etc. One who fulfills the mitzvot not because it is right and necessary to do so, but so as to serve his own selfish and unworthy agenda, deserves to be cursed.” Akedat Yitzchak

“In my opinion, the acceptance of the Torah addressed in this verse is that one must acknowledge the mitzvot in his heart, that he must consider them true and believe that one who observes them is rewarded, and one who violates them is punished. And if he rejects any one of the commandments and considers it forever void, he is cursed. If, however, he merely violates one of the mitzvot – say, by eating swine or another forbidden species to satisfy his animal appetite, or by failing to build a succah or observe lulav out of laziness, he is not execrated under the rubric of this verse. For the verse does not say ‘(Cursed be) he who does not observe the words of this Torah’ but, rather, ‘who does not uphold the words of this Torah in order to do them.’” Ramban

“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.” Anne Frank

“Every blessing ignored becomes a curse.” Brazilian mystic and novelist Paulo Coelho

Questions for Discussion

Ramban articulates a remarkably modern distinction between intellectual acceptance of Jewish law and a personal commitment to practicing its observance. He demands of each of us the intellectual exercise of recognizing the Torah’s commandments as binding, notwithstanding our personal shortcomings in its application to our daily lives. How far is our conduct from our convictions? How might we each reduce that distance by putting into practice what we acknowledge in theory?

Anne Frank’s statement is closely related to Ramban’s philosophical stance. Our verse asks us, too, to uphold our ideals, even if circumstances (surely less daunting than those that confronted the teenage diarist) or distractions keep us from carrying them out. What are the ideals we cherish most? To what as-yet-unattained moral or spiritual achievements do we aspire?

Compare Akedat Yitzchak and Ramban. Taken together, they teach that someone who accepts the Torah in theory but transgresses its laws is at a distinct spiritual advantage over someone who fulfills Jewish law out of flawed motives. Are our actions or our motives critical? How would the Ketav Sofer answer this question?

Paulo Coelho provides a concise summary of parashat Ki Tavo. Spiritual neutrality is an illusion. Blessings and curses are our only options. Why was this principle dramatized for our ancestors at this particular juncture in Israelite history? What events necessitated the blessings and curses, whether Israel was ready or not?

What steps can we and our congregations take to strengthen Torah, beyond teaching and fulfilling its precepts?

Theme #2: “Do You See What I See?”

“Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the Land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Deuteronomy 29:1-3

Study: Derash

“The underlying justification for this grand covenantal ceremony, 40 years after Sinai, is that now at last, on the verge of crossing into the land, the people is granted the discernment to see God’s real power.” Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses

“Perhaps only after living through the miracles of the Egyptian exodus and desert wanderings could the Jewish people finally look back and recognize the magnitude of what they had experienced. It often occurs that one can only appreciate a miraculous moment long after it occurs. A contrary thought can be suggested. Rather than emphasizing miracles as the key to faith, it is the everyday that leads to true belief. In fact, the test of people is not how they believe when experiencing a supernatural moment, but how they commit themselves when living a normal everyday existence. Only now, after 40 years, when miracles were no longer as overt, would the Jews really show their faith in God. It is easy to make a commitment on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when one is experiencing the awesome power of the spirit of the holiday. The test is one’s preparedness to follow through; remaining committed even after the dust has settled.” Rabbi Avi Weiss

“Often, it is only in looking back on a time in one’s life that it begins to make sense. When we’re in the moment, certain aspects of our experience may seem obvious or wondrous, but our ability to comprehend and connect the incidents to the larger canvas of life is often lacking. As human beings, we seek an awareness of the ‘transcendent hand’ – a sense of the Divine whose energy and presence can be felt, but whose ways remain a mystery. We long to make sense of the seemingly arbitrary ways that our lives fit together. Like us, our ancestors the Israelites surely yearned to know why their lives had unfolded as they did. No doubt they wanted to believe that everything they lived through had a divine purpose, even if all had not yet been revealed. The passage implies that God gives the heart the capacity for faith, but only to those who exercise it.” Rabbi Camille Shira Angel

“Forty years have passed since the Six Day War was fought and won. Forty years – a whole generation – during which we have studied that war, its background, causes, and course. Countless analyses have been written, from the most superficial babbling in cheap paperbacks and forgotten newspapers, to the most serious books and articles by the world’s foremost experts in military doctrines, strategists, tacticians and political scientists. The very fact that Israel survived was a miracle; that we not merely survived, but won a decisive victory, infinitely more miraculous. Indeed, a West Point general once remarked that though the U.S. military academy studies wars fought throughout the world, it does not study the Six Day War - because what concerns West Point is strategy and tactics, not miracles.” Daniel Pinner

Questions for Discussion

What miracles go unheralded, unappreciated, unrecognized by today’s Jews? Technology and health care advances? The downfall of despotic regimes like Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union? The founding and flourishing of the State of Israel, its emergence as a besieged bastion of democracy and freedom, its growth as a military superpower, world leader in medicine, communications, education, and environmental advances? Surely, history will judge the first century of Israeli statehood as a time of wondrous miracles. Do we lack “a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear”? How might we, as Rabbi Angel puts it, exercise our capacity for faith and our ability to recognize and appreciate the miraculous?

When have you most explicitly experienced a sense of the miraculous in your own life? Did you come more fully to understand the element of providence in your personal experience only with the passage of time?

In what ways are the everyday, the routine, the normal more the key to Jewish faith than the spectacular and the miraculous? What elements of Jewish observance are designed (or, in practice, tend) to reinforce this religious attitude? Does this emphasis make faith more accessible or more challenging?

Historic Note

Among the curses in parashat Ki Tavo, read on September 17, 2011, is: “The Lord shall scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other. Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest” (Deuteronomy 28:64-65). On September 17, 1394, Jews were expelled from France by order of King Charles VI.

Halachah L’Maaseh

In addition to his philosophical interpretation of Deuteronomy 27:26 about “upholding the Torah,” Ramban notes the homiletical interpretation of the verse as being about someone who does not show the writing in the Torah properly to “all the men and women” of the congregation to see. When honored with hagba (the highest of all Torah honors: see BT Megillah 32A), a person should keep the Torah open not longer than his strength safely permits (Mishnah Berurah Orach Chaim 134:8). A seam should be visible in the middle of the open section (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 147:3). Hoshen Mishpat 267:20 has been interpreted to indicate that you should not open the scroll more than necessary to show three columns of print. You should be careful to allow the entire congregation to see the print by turning your body, not by moving the scroll itself.

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