TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Ki tavo


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Ki Tavo
Selihot – Motzei Shabbat
September 1, 2018 | 21 Elul 5778

Annual | Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 (Etz Hayim p. 1140-1159; Hertz p. 859-873)
Triennial | Deuteronomy 26:12-28:6 (Etz Hayim p. 1142-1149; Hertz p. 860-866)
Haftarah | Isaiah 60:1-22 (Etz Hayim p. 1160-1164; Hertz p. 874-877)

D’var Torah: Public vs. Private Piety
Rabbi Joel Levy, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty & Rosh Yeshiva

In Deuteronomy chapter 27 Moses describes an elaborate ceremony that the Israelites are to enact soon after crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land. As part of the ceremony a formal list of curses will be written on stones and declared from a local hilltop. There are twelves curses laid out in verses 15-26. In each case the declaration of the curse is to be followed by a public shout of consent: “Amen!”

15. Cursed be the man who makes an engraved or molten image…and sets it up in secret…Cursed be he who dishonors his father or his mother…
16. Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark…
17. Cursed be he who makes the blind to wander out of the way…
18. Cursed be he who perverts the judgment of the stranger, orphan, and widow…
19. Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife…
20. Cursed be he who lies with any kind of beast…
21. Cursed be he who lies with his sister…
22. Cursed be he who lies with his mother-in-law…
23. Cursed be he who strikes his neighbor secretly…
24. Cursed be he who takes a bribe to slay an innocent person…
25. Cursed be he who does not maintain all the words of this Torah to do them…

The Rashbam, Samuel ben Meir (France, 1085-1158), grandson of Rashi, proposes, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 27:15 that the common denominator between these twelve cases is that they are all sins that are commonly performed in private and which are thus unlikely to be discoveredFor Rashbam this whole infrastructure of curses only pertains to people’s private worlds of deviance and is meant to address private behavior. He refers us to a verse in next week’s parashah, Deuteronomy 29:28: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

This famous verse, says Rashbam, teaches us that the curses were not required for public wrongdoing. Public sin is dealt with in public by the court system and the various official, and public, punishments; “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” The ritualized curses are required to create a common consent to some kind of unknown and ambiguous divine punishment in cases where sins are performed in private, beyond the scope of human courts: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God.”

For many liberal Jews, Jewish practice really only makes sense in the public realm. I have many wonderful congregants in my community who come to synagogue “religiously” every shabbat and holiday and for whom that practice is extremely deep and meaningful. If I ask them whether they would consider shabbat davening on their own or en famille whilst away on their summer vacations they look at me with puzzlement; why would they do such a thing? Some might visit Jewish communities and pray with them on foreign holidays but that merely reinforces my claim here. One of the Achilles’ Heels of liberal Judaism is that at its best it creates spaces for public practice but it very often fails to articulate any compelling reason for private piety.

Rashbam makes it clear that the court system, the “shoftim and shotrim”, cannot really influence, let alone ensure, private practice. Other mechanisms must be in place in every society to inculcate private piety rather than just public compliance. Fear of punishment is nowhere near as effective, or as important, as true fear of God – a deep and abiding anxiety that one’s behavior has made one cursed, unworthy and unable to receive divine blessing. In this month of Elul, as we gear up for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Rashbam offers us both a question and a challenge. What will we do, what steps will we take, so that Judaism is more than a series of external norms, and is instead something that guides and sustains us, even (and especially) when we are alone? Our liturgy encourages us to imagine ourselves as sheep passing one-by-one under the penetrating gaze of our Shepherd. Will God see in our hearts only public compliance and conformity or will She also be aware of a deep personal commitment to Jewish observance that underpins and transcends mere membership of the flock?

Parashat Ki Tavo Self-Study
Vered Hollander-GoldfarbConservative Yeshiva Faculty

The parashah contains ceremonies to be carried out in the land that God gives us. It also contains the blessing and curses that could befall us should we fail in our relationship with God while living in the land.

1) We are commanded to bring ‘from the beginning of all the fruit of the earth that you will bring from your land that the LORD your God gave you’ (26:2). What does this mitzvah stress, and why?

2) The basket of the fruits are placed in front of the altar. Why?

3) Once the people are in the land, they will perform a ratifying ceremony of blessings and curses on the Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (27:9-26). Some of the warnings/curses seem basic enough to deserve to be among the few mentioned, such as prohibition against idol making, or murder. But why do you think that warnings against things such as tripping a blind person on the way were included in the list?

4) This parashah contains one of the two lists of blessings and curses that conclude covenants in the Torah (the other is at the end of Vayikra). In the blessing section (28:1-14) we are told that if we follow the LORD’s mitzvot the ‘fruit of your belly, fruit of your land, fruit of your animal’ will be blessed (v.4). What does the order tell us about the priorities of the Torah? (For an extra challenge, look at v.11. What does that add?)

5) 28:15-68 are the horrible things that will befall us should we not follow the mitzvot. This very long section is usually read in a hushed voice (but loud enough that we can hear it). Why? All of this is included in 1 Aliya, but the Aliya does not begin there, but rather in the middle of the blessings. What might be the logic behind that?

D’var Haftarah: Light Amidst Darkness
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Isaiah’s prophecy of light and darkness is an eschatological prophecy, namely, it speaks of the end of time. In those days to come, Israel and Jerusalem will be enveloped in light while all else will be dark: “Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you the Lord will shine.” (60:2) This verse is likely an allusion to the plague of darkness in Egypt. (S. Paul, Isaiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 473) The intended message being that justice will be served both for the oppressor and the oppressed. Israel, who suffered at the hands of the nations shall in the end merit light, while the nations which oppressed them shall experience darkness.

In the following midrash, this verse is transformed from a description of the end of days into a portrayal of the revelation of the Torah: “And the rabbis said: the nations of the world did not observe the Torah which was given from the midst of the darkness, regarding them it is written: ‘Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth’ (Isaiah 60:2), but Israel, which observed the Torah which was given from the midst of the darkness, as it is written: ‘when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness’ (Deuteronomy 5:20), regarding whom it is said: ‘But upon you the Lord will shine, and His Presence be seen over you.’ (Isaiah 60:2)” (Vayikra Rabbah 6:6, Margoliot edition p. 146)

On the face of it, this midrash presents itself as a polemic expressing the primacy of the nation of Israel which accepted and observes the Torah over those who do not. A closer look, however, reveals a deeper, more sophisticated, message. What distinguishes Israel from the other nations in this midrash? Torah, the source of light, is revealed in an environment of darkness. Darkness here represents a world characterized by evil. It is a normal human tendency for those living in such an environment not to challenge it and to simply live according to its rules, base as they may be. Israel distinguishes itself, in its willingness to accept the Torah in a such a world and do something positive in the midst of this darkness.

The message taught here is that the light will shine on those who are willing to do what is right even when faced by an environment which does wrong and is filled with darkness. This is the root of the fundamental optimism that has animated Judaism since time immemorial.

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