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Parashat Ki Tavo 5772 – 09/05/2012

Parashat Ki Tavo  5772

[Cursed is he] who will not uphold the words of this Torah (27:26)

In my opinion, this acceptance requires that one should acknowledge the validity of the commandments in his heart and regard them as true.  He must also believe that one who performs them will have the reward of good, and one who transgresses them will be punished.  If one denies the validity of any one of the commandments, or regards it as annulled at any time in the future, he is cursed.  However, if he merely transgressed one of the commandments, such as where he ate swine or an abominable creature to satisfy his lust, or if he did not make for himself a lulav or succah due to laziness, he is not included in this curse of destruction.  For the verse did not state “who will not perform the words of this Torah,” but rather who will not uphold the words of this Torah to perform them. … Thus this verse constitutes a curse of destruction for the rebels and deniers of the commandments of the Torah.  (Ramban ad loc)

I had the privilege of attending an Orthodox conversion ceremony some years ago.  I was a little surprised that the Rabbi did not ask the potential convert for a commitment to live according to the rules of Torah.  Rather, he was asked if he assented that the entire Torah was given by Gd and that all its mitzvot were binding upon him.  On hearing a positive response, the conversion proceeded and the candidate became a “Jew by choice.”  It has been said that in our age every Jew is a Jew by choice, for opting out of a Jewish lifestyle is not only easy, in many segments of our society it is almost the default choice.  So perhaps we should take a closer look at what we are choosing when we identify ourselves as Jews, whether by birth or otherwise.

The basis of Judaism is a belief in Gd, and that Gd reveals Himself to human beings through prophecy.  Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest of all the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him, and his prophecy was Torah (see Rambam’s Principles of the Faith, #6-8).  What is Torah?  According to our tradition, Torah is not simply a book of commands, or a history book, or a scientific treatise.  Our tradition views Torah as the very blueprint of creation: God looked into the Torah and created the world (Zohar).  What that means is that the structure of Torah – the sequence of letters, words, phrases and sentences, ideas and sounds, all must mirror, in some sense, the structure of creation.

While the deep structure of Torah is that it mirrors the structure of creation, Torah has a surface value as well.  The Torah, with its surface values, was given to human beings to provide structure and basis for our activities in the material world.  The Torah was not given to the ministering angels; they are in no need of commandments to honor parents, nor prohibitions against eating certain foods.  Rather Torah was given to human beings to provide a pathway for our spiritual development.

Now I think the point Ramban is making in the passage quoted above, is that Torah is an integrated whole, just as the creation which it mirrors is an integrated whole; both come from Gd Who is One, Unique, without parts, completely integrated.  Something which is completely integrated may have its own internal dynamics, which allows it to evolve and adapt to a changing environment; however it is not something that anything outside itself can tamper with and expect that its integrity will be maintained.  Thus we are commanded neither to add to the commandments of Torah nor to subtract from them.  Think of a geodesic dome – if we were to remove one of the struts it’s easy to see that the whole structure would be weakened, but where would you add a strut?  Anything you put in would simply distort the relationship between the existing parts and will also weaken the structure.

Thus we are told in many places that if one denies any part of Torah, he basically is denying all of Torah, for he is calling into question its basic integrity.  Since he has damaged the integrity of Torah, it becomes that much less effective for him in his spiritual development, and this of course is the ultimate curse, for it guarantees that we – that is, our souls – remain bound to the material world.  Looked at from a different angle, if we pick and choose which mitzvot we will do, we are substituting our own, limited, mortal human intelligence for Gd’s Intelligence, which created and continually sustains the entire universe.  The mitzvot are commandments, not a menu of suggestions for us to contemplate!  But they are commandments Gd has given us for our own good, so that we can grow and come closer to Gd.

Torah, in its integrity, gives us an absolute basis upon which to root our actions; halachah provides the principles and practical guidance for the choices we have to make every day.  If we choose not to be guided, we will most likely get lost and any progress we make will be haphazard at best, and may, Gd forbid, take us in a completely wrong direction.  Until and unless it is fully refined and purified, the human heart is no fail-safe guide to proper behavior.  Germany in the early part of the 20th century was considered one of the most advanced and civilized countries in the world, until it got completely off the track.

Gd has given us a perfect technology for bringing our individual lives and the life of the cosmos to fulfillment.  We only need to choose to use it, as it is.  Gd has also provided us with a self-repair mechanism – t’shuvah – when we inevitably fail to live up to Torah’s ideals, for as King Solomon tells us, there is nobody so perfect that he never sins in any way.  We do have to have the correct attitude towards Torah and to the authoritative tradition of interpreting it – an attitude of humility and trust in the tradition that reflects the collective consciousness of the Jewish people over the past millennia.

Pirke Avot, Chapters 3-4

Chapter 4, Mishnah 10

[R. Yishmael] used to say,

Do not judge alone, for only One judges alone.

This admonition of R. Yishmael’s is primarily addressed to actual judges.  A Jewish court may have, in almost all cases, no fewer than three judges; in some situations this number may be increased, and there were also tribal and regional Sanhedrins of 23 judges, plus the great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which met on the Temple Mount and had 71 judges.  But I think we can all take this admonition to heart.  We are all called upon to judge every day.  We have to judge what foods to eat, what kind of clothing to wear, what kind of work we will do, how we will behave to others.  If we try to judge alone, that is, on the basis of our individual understanding of right and wrong, then we are very likely to run into trouble.  Rather, R. Yishmael advises, we should recognize that only Gd can judge by Himself, for only Gd’s perception and understanding is infinite and able to comprehend the whole range of effects and ramifications of any action.  In our case however, there is no need at all for us to go it alone.  We have a tradition that stems directly from Gd, and whose development has been guided by Gd, either directly through the direct insights of the Prophets and Sages of our tradition, or indirectly through the application of the rules of exegesis to Torah.  By attaching ourselves to the Tradition we can prevent ourselves from getting off the path of growth and evolution.