Parashat Ki Tavo 5781
Rabbi Meir Sendor
The rapid re-collapse of Afghanistan into the hands of the barbaric Taliban is a rude awakening for Western liberal societies. The pundits are trying to figure out what went wrong with twenty years of U.S. and NATO efforts to nurture a more liberal society that could defend itself in that troubled corner of the troubled Middle East. I’ll leave the military and political issues to them. But the existential issue is one we should all wrestle with. What binds a society together to stand strong to defend each other and uphold its principles? “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were apparently not enough to motivate regular Afghan men and women to join together to defend each other against the death, enslavement and misery promised them by the Taliban version of Islam, that they know is in store for them from past experience. Will crude, simplistic ideologies enforced with violence always trump subtle, complex and peaceful values? Yeats’ lines come to mind:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
How do we inspire passionate intensity to stand up for goodness, justice and compassion with complete commitment?
This is an issue at the heart of this week’s formidable parashah, that instructs us on the first steps in building a full Torah society once Israel enters the Land of Israel:
דברים פרק כו פסוק א
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱל-ֹקיךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ:
And it will be, when you come into the Land that HaShem your God is giving you as a heritage, and you inherit it and settle it…
The parashah includes a section of blessings, followed by a section of curses that mirror the blessings, though at greater length and in gruesome detail. Relevant to current events, there’s the blessing:
דברים פרק כח פסוק ז
יִתֵּ֨ן יְקֹוָ֤ק אֶת־אֹיְבֶ֙יךָ֙ הַקָּמִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יךָ נִגָּפִ֖ים לְפָנֶ֑יךָ בְּדֶ֤רֶךְ אֶחָד֙ יֵצְא֣וּ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וּבְשִׁבְעָ֥ה דְרָכִ֖ים יָנ֥וּסוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ:
HaShem will make your enemies who rise up against you beaten before you – on one path they will go out against you and in seven paths they will flee before you.
Rashi explains “this is the way of those who are panicked, to flee scattered to every side.”
Then there’s the corresponding curse:
דברים פרק כח פסוק כה
יִתֶּנְךָ֨ יְקֹוָ֥ק׀ נִגָּף֘ לִפְנֵ֣י אֹיְבֶיךָ֒ בְּדֶ֤רֶךְ אֶחָד֙ תֵּצֵ֣א אֵלָ֔יו וּבְשִׁבְעָ֥ה דְרָכִ֖ים תָּנ֣וּס לְפָנָ֑יו וְהָיִ֣יתָ לְזַעֲוָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל מַמְלְכ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ:
HaShem will make you beaten before your enemy – on one path you will go out against him, and in seven paths you shall flee before him, and you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
As we watch in horror as the Afghan people flee in all directions before their totalitarian oppressors, we are reminded that the Jewish people have been through this prophecy, several times. We will likely be tested again.
In the prologue to this section of the parashah, Moshe Rabbenu states that to receive the blessings rather than incur the curses depends on
דברים פרק כח פסוק א
וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע֙ בְּקוֹל֙ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱ-לֹקיךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם וּנְתָ֨נְךָ֜ יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱ-לֹקיךָ֙ עֶלְי֔וֹן עַ֖ל כָּל־גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ:
If you will listen, indeed listen to the Voice of HaShem your God, to be sure to do all His commandments that I command you this day…
Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh and Rabbi Hayyim Ibn Attar note that Moshe Rabbenu is urging us, not just to listen and to do all the commandments, but to listen intently, realize God Himself is voicing His commands to us, and be fully committed to doing them. Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, known as the Malbi”m, explains that Moshe is calling us to an emotional quality in our performance of mitzvot, to pursue them with passion, constantly growing in our commitment to discover and fulfill of God’s real Will. It is this quality of passionate commitment that earns us God’s blessings, and the inner cohesion of Torah society. This echoes Moshe’s call, earlier in the parashah, to fulfill all the mitzvot “with all your heart and all your soul (Dt. 26:16).”
This understanding of the section of blessings and curses, that we all being called, with carrot and stick, to passionate intensity in creating a virtuous Torah society, also puts into perspective the four preceding sections of the parashah, each one commanding a set of concrete actions to be performed when we get into the Land of Israel: the bringing of first fruits to the Temple and giving thanks; the testimony of completing all required tithes; the setting up of large stones covered with plaster on which the entire Torah is to be written once the Israelites cross the Jordan River; and the ceremony of affirming a set of blessings and curses at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval. Each of these concrete actions is an essential building block of commitment to creating and maintaining a just and compassionate society.
In the ceremony of celebrating the first fruits of the harvest we appreciate the precious gift of the Land of Israel, and in the testimony of thanks for the first fruits we recount the core narrative of Israel, so each of us understands the powerful destiny of our people that we are to fulfill in this Land. In the testimony of completing all required tithes we affirm and guarantee that we will always care for the poor and the struggling, the hallmark of a compassionate society. In the setting up of the stones at the gateway to our Land, on which the entire Torah is written, and in seventy languages according to the Mishnah Sotah (7:5), we affirm that our society, on behalf of all humanity, is passionately committed to the laws and the values of Torah, through and through.
The fourth ceremony, and the way it’s presented in the parashah, is thought provoking. As described in the Mishnah and Gemara Sotah (32a, 36a-37b), the Israelites are to gather at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, twin peaks in the Shomron that face each other with a valley in between (today the city of Nablus sits in that valley). Six tribes are to ascend Mount Gerizim: Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissakhar, Yosef, and Benyamin. The other six tribes are to stand on Mount Eval: Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naftali. The Levi’im of the age of divine service are stand between the two mountains, shouting out eleven blessings alternating with eleven corresponding curses. When pronouncing the blessings, the Levi’im face the tribes on Mount Gerizim. When pronouncing the curses the Levi’im face the tribes on Mount Eval. After each blessing and each curse the entire nation shouts out “Amen.” According to several commentators, the common theme of the selected blessings and curses is to pledge not to commit transgressions that can be easily done in secret, transgressions that would erode the inner core of national solidarity (see, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and Chizkuni).
Oddly, the only part of the ceremony that is actually quoted in the parashah is the pronouncement of the curses – not the blessings. It might seem that the tribes that had to stand on Mount Eval to receive those curses were getting the short end of the stick. Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh explains that it’s not so. The tribes standing on both mountains were acting on behalf of all Israel, and those tribes standing for the curses were acting especially selflessly. Though emotionally uncomfortable, it is as important, if not more important, to face into and understand the negative consequences of transgression as to receive the positive blessings of virtuous action – and this is why the curses are quoted verbatim, but not the blessings.
The Gemara says that this ceremony was a momentous occasion for the nation of Israel. As the tribes stood upon these mountains to affirm blessings and curses for each other, it signified that they were standing up for each other, signifying, from that time forth and ever after, the core principle that every Israelite accepts responsibility for the welfare of every other Israelite (Sotah 37b). At this moment we became, not just a nation, but a holy nation of human beings pledged to help each other discover and fulfill God’s Will, to work for each other’s highest good, to support and to defend each other in total solidarity. This is the vision that HaShem has for Israel, and ultimately for all humanity.
In this month of Elul, a month devoted to taking stock of our moral and spiritual condition, the multiple crises this world is suffering should be shaking us all awake. As we see the poor Afghan people abandoned by the West and descending into what threatens to be a long, dark season of subjugation and oppression, we need to face difficult questions about ourselves, to face into the negative consequences of our actions and inactions. What more can we be doing to strengthen and defend goodness and justice and peace in our society and human civilization at-large? Do we, as Israelis in Israel and as Jews around the world, really stand up for each other with passion and compassion and solidarity? Do we really stand up for humanity as the “light of the nations” it is our God-given mission to be? By acknowledging and facing honestly into the crises of our lives and our world and our responsibility for them, may we band together to heal and repair our society and our world and bring God’s blessings to us all.