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Parashat Ki Tavo 5779 — 09/21/2019

Devarim 26:1-29:8

Part of the Tochachah / Rebuke that forms a significant part of Ki Tavo is the statement “… and there you will serve other gods, of wood and stone” (28:36). Later a similar statement appears: “… and there you will serve other gods whom you did not know, neither you nor your fathers, [gods] of wood and stone” (28:64). R. Goldin questions this – isn’t idolatry the cause of the exile, and not part of the punishment?

R. Goldin first cites Onkelos’ standard Aramaic translation / elucidation of the text which renders the verses: “… there you will serve nations who serve gods whom you did not know…” The verb used for “to serve,” v’avadeta, can mean either “to serve” or “to worship,” and it is apparently based on this ambiguity that Onkelos allows himself to depart from what appears to be the plain meaning of the text. Incidentally, there is another instance in Torah where this displacement appears to occur.  If the means of a sojourner who resides with you shall become sufficient, and your brother becomes impoverished with him, and he is sold to an alien who resides with you, or to an idol of a sojourner’s family; … (Lev 25:47). The Stone Chumash (Artscroll) comments: “The Jew sold himself to be a menial servant of a temple, such as a woodchopper or a water drawer (Rashi; Kiddushin 20a).” In this case as well, the idolatry itself is put at one remove from the Jew(s). Since Onkelos was active during Talmudic times it is unclear who influenced whom, or if this “removal” was the general understanding of the Torah’s meaning. My own suspicion is the latter.

Centuries later R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) wrote along the same lines:

The context teaches that here it is not speaking of actual idolatry, but is rather a description of the general fate that will befall Israel in exile. The nations to whom Israel would be subject are themselves under the mastery of the heathen gods and form their whole way of life and behavior under their influence.
So that in truth Israel is subject to the pagan worship of the gods… . All the bitterness of the future centuries of exile is rooted in the fact that Israel’s fate became dependent on men before whose eyes the light of monotheistic Truth did not shine and did not bring them to humaneness by its penetrating education. (R. Hirsch to Devarim 38:36, 38:64)

It appears that R. Hirsch goes farther than Onkelos. Rather than simply rendering the verses as referring to serving idolatrous nations, R. Hirsch appears to equate the idolatrous nations with their gods – that is, the outlook, the lifestyle of the nation are personified by the gods that that nation worships. By assimilating into foreign cultures we imbibe foreign attitudes and modes of thought into our nature, where they don’t mesh well with who we are at deeper levels, and the result is strain and suffering in life, whether brought on by foreign armies or by our own anomie.

R. Don Yitzchak Abravanel goes even further. R. Abravanel was a counselor to King Ferdinand of Spain until 1492, when he, like the rest of the Jewish population, was unceremoniously invited to leave the country, convert to Christianity or die. His approach mirrors his experience; R. Goldin quotes him:

Apostasy, the Abravanel maintains, can sometimes be viewed as a punishment: “The intent of this verse is not that they [the Israelites] will become subject to those who worship other gods, as Onkelos and Rashi suggest. Instead the concept here is that after their exile, many will abandon their faith due to the torments and persecutions that they will be unable to bear.” (Abravanel to Devarim Chapter 28)

There are many levels on which apostasy may be regarded as a punishment. On a very practical level, until very recently the vast majority of people lived their entire lives within a few miles of the place they were born. One’s entire identity was bound up with one’s community, and generally one’s community identity was inextricably intertwined with the faith of that community. Death was preferable, in many cases, to the loss of this identity, a loss that left one adrift in the cosmos with no place to hang one’s hat. Perhaps it is the sense of loss of community in our times that drives the current “identity politics” movement, with all its attendant abuses. Hard experience, however, shows that one cannot merely switch communities – when Jews converted to either Christianity or Islam, rarely were they accepted as members of those communities. A community consists of webs of relationships that have lasted a lifetime, and often generations. It is hard for the outsider to break into that web. That went double for Jews converting to the majority religion, who were often suspected, and often rightly so, of having doubtful sincerity.

On a deeper level, however, there is more to a community than simply shared beliefs. Just as every individual has his or her unique task to accomplish, so every community has its task to accomplish. The task of the Jewish people is to be a light unto the nations, and to do that we need all hands on deck. Each individual is given the specific tools that he or she needs to fulfill that task, and all the individuals, components or the community, working together, have everything that is needed for the community to do what it needs to do. Thus the apostasy of even one individual leaves not only that individual adrift, but the community unable to function optimally, to its detriment and to the detriment of all of creation.

Exile and apostasy are really two symptoms of the same disease. The disease is the breakdown of the community caused by the individual members of that community having lost connection to their essential purpose in life. When that happens, the relationships between individuals, between individuals and the community, and between both individuals and the community and the Land, all break down. Other than the Jews, I know of no other community that has survived such a level of disruption and has begun to reconstitute its national life in its ancestral homeland after 2000 years. It is up to our generation to make sure we do a better job this time than last.

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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parshah Ki Tavo (When You Come In)

All the Parshiyyot (parts) of Torah have levels: At the deepest level, they are vibrations of Gd, Gd’s Name, The Liveliness of Gd. Listening to these vibrations helps us to attune to Gd, Totality, to gain teshuvah, restoration to the Primordial Oneness.

But they also have meaning, stories, commandments that give us principles, values, rules for living life in the everyday way and attuning us to Gd through our sacred behavior, our religious behavior.

In this parshah, as in all of the Book of Devarim, (Deuteronomy), Moses is preparing the Children of Israel to enter the Promised Land.  Torah is for everyone, all times, so he is preparing us, too, to enter the Promised Land — not literally, the Land of Canaan, but more importantly, the Real Promised Land – dwelling in Gd, Totality.

The first words are encouraging: Ki Tavo means “when you come in”, not when you go in. The encouragement is that Gd is inviting the Children of Israel to come in – to join Him in the Promised Land, not just sending us out from the familiar land into an unknown one where we will have to fend for ourselves.

2. Encouragement is also given by the part of the parshah in which Moses says, (paraphrase) You have selected the Lrd this day, and He has selected you. This means whenever we move toward Wholeness-Gd — Gd moves toward us. A little love on our part brings Infinite Love from Gd.

3. Encouragement is given by the last words of the parshah: “And you shall observe the words of this covenant and fulfill them, in order that you will succeed in all that you do.” Moses tells us we will observe and fulfill, not that we must, but we will.

4. Encouragement also comes from the fact that our ancestors claimed Torah for everyone, not just for the Levites — the teachers and priests. Moses rejoiced over this, “…until this day, the Lrd has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” But today you have chosen Torah, chosen Gd, and you have become a people — a community, not just a collection of individuals.

Fortunately, for us, G-d has given our hearts enough knowingness that we choose Him; enough eyes and ears that we can appreciate the beauty of His Creation (the impulses of Him, the Flows of Him), and make use of it for food, shelter, clothing, tools.

And, fortunately, He Is, as He has told Moses earlier, Beyond Time, “I Was, I Am, and I Will Be” so He is all there is, and He is always guiding us to open our hearts to Him — to Our Self, to One.

And, fortunately, we have examples, in our Jewish tradition, of Tzaddikim, the righteous, people whose hearts, eyes and ears were open enough to follow Torah well and to pass on traditions of openness. These examples confirm for us that the Goal is near, not far (paraphrasing, “It is within us to achieve”)

Examples of Tzaddikim are the Baal Shem Tov and Schneur Zalman: Wednesday, September 18, is the 18th of Elul, the birthday of both.

The Baal Shem Tov we honor for bringing Direct Experience of Gd back into Judaism and bringing also the emphasis on Joy and Love in the services.

Schneur Zalman we honor for being the founder of Chabad: “Ch” for “Chochmah”,Wisdom, “B” for “Binah”, Understanding, and “D” for “Da’at”, Knowledge, the Personal Aspect of Gd as Totality. He is the author of “Tanya,” a Kabbalistic explanation of Torah that seeks to add the intellectual element to the Baal Shem Tov’s highly experience- and feeling-based approach.

5. We can gain encouragement from the command to offer the first fruits — symbolically, the first fruits of any of our actions — to Gd: it means fruits will be there and we will have hearts open enough to express gratitude by offering them.

6. Similarly, the command to tithe to Levites, stranger, orphan and widow gives us the chance to keep our heart open and to share what we have earned in the awareness that our earnings are gifts from Gd to be shared.

7. Through Moses, Gd commanded our ancestors to set up huge stones plastered with lime on which “you will write the Torah.” For us, hardbound copies or Torah on our computer or the Internet will serve. But in reality, it is our good actions that lead us to be aware of Torah in our hearts, Torah as the Liveliness of Gd, One with Gd.

8. Fortunately, even the curses that will be spoken from Mt. Ebal will have a quality of blessing in them because they will be proclaimed from the mountain on which Gd has put His Name and an altar has been built and because they issue from the Mouth of Gd and are intended to restore us to act with Gd’s Will and no longer to praise ourselves as if we were the Author of our accomplishments.

So this parshah gives us encouragement today that by reading Torah, listening to Torah, following Torah we can attune ourselves to Gd and enter the Promised Land, Oneness with Gd, full restoration of our awareness.

Baruch HaShem!