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Parashat Ki Tavo 5776 — 09/24/2016

Parashat Ki Tavo 5776 — 09/24/2016

Devarim 26:1-29:8

Our parashah contains the famous tochachah, which is much harsher than the tochachah in parashat Bechukotai. I read somewhere that the reason it is so harsh is that it came from Moshe Rabbeinu, rather than from Gd directly. Devarim was written (or rather orated) by Moshe in the last weeks of his life, whereas the rest of Torah was dictated by Gd. Devarim was then ordered to be incorporated in Torah at Gd’s command; nevertheless, it contains a trace of its human origins. And as enlightened and as connected to Gd as Moshe was, he was still a human being and didn’t contain the same infinite level of compassion that Gd has for His creation.

But why is this parashah, and quite a bit of the rest of Torah, so full of curses?

It is far simpler to create a curse than to create a blessing. This is not because people are generally wicked, but because the moment something diverges from its usual order, it is already a curse. Normally, there is more of a basis for curses than for blessings, because only the optimal state is considered a blessing. Whether it is too hot, too cold, or too rainy, if it is not perfect then it is a curse. Thus, the margin for the optimal is very narrow, and if conditions incline even slightly to one side, it is already no longer optimal. As the Talmud says, “Your people … can endure neither too much good nor too much punishment” (Taanit 23a). Even if one is given more and more of something, he will not necessarily be better off.

I think that R. Steinsaltz has hit the nail right on the head, and his argument can be connected with his argument in last week’s parashah (Again, I emphasize that these talks are culled from many years’ worth of talks and essays, and there is no reason to suspect that R. Steinsaltz meant there to be this connection, nor, for that matter that the editor of this volume meant it. I am making the connection and you can direct any blame towards me.) In last week’s parashah we discussed the perfection of Torah and our inability to understand it fully, due to our limitations as finite human beings. That is from the subjective side.

From the objective side, we see that there is one way to be blessed, and that is to be perfect. Anything short of perfection is cursed! This is a bit of a hard judgment, and is probably true only theoretically; nevertheless there seems to be a vast gulf between perfect and not-so-perfect. Consider Moshe Rabbeinu – for what appeared to be a rather minor infraction (hitting the rock instead of speaking to it) he was denied entry to the Land of Israel, the goal to which he had worked all his life. The commentators explain the “sin” and its punishment in different ways, but they always come back to the principle that Gd is exacting to a hairsbreadth with the most righteous, and the more righteous a person is, the more severely any breach is evaluated and dealt with.

Why should this be so? It almost makes you afraid to improve yourself! I think R. Steinsaltz’ analysis gives us a way to approach these questions. The blessing is perfection. Everything that is not perfect, even if it deviates by a hairsbreadth, is imperfect and must be corrected. An example might clarify this. If you’re shooting at a target 10 yards away, a small deviation in your aim will not cause you to miss the target. If the target is 100 yards away, that same small deviation is magnified ten times. The further we want to go, the more accurate we have to be.

I think we can analyze the thoughts and actions of the righteous in the same way. A righteous person is one who is more connected to the Divine – someone who puts Gd’s Will first. Therefore, such a person’s thoughts and actions are coming from a much more profound place than our thoughts and actions. They have, as it were “farther to go” to get from the depths of their consciousness to the surface level of action. For most of us, who think on a more superficial level, the distance is not so far, and any deviation is not as important, but for someone on Moshe Rabbeinu’s level, a slight deviation could have disastrous consequences. (Exercise for the reader: I invite you to look up some of the commentaries on this incident, and see if you can read them in this light.)

Now I would like to take a look at this from another angle. In physics an optimum is either a maximum or a minimum – the top of a hill or the bottom of a valley. If you balance a ball perfectly on the top of a hill, it is in equilibrium – it will stay at its optimum. However if you give it even the slightest push to one side, it will roll down the hill. This is called “unstable equilibrium.” In the case of a ball at the bottom of the valley, it is also in equilibrium, but now, if you push it to one side or the other it rolls back to the lowest point. This is called “stable equilibrium.” It would appear from R. Steinsaltz’ words that he views most cases of spiritual equilibrium as unstable – that is, if we are not very careful, we can fall from our perch and wind up very far from where we want to be. This conforms with the dictum of Hillel’s that we are not to trust ourselves until the day of our death. After all, if Moshe Rabbeinu could falter, what about the rest of us?

I would like to suggest another possibility. Our whole Torah is predicated on the proposition that living life according to its dictates is purifying and connects us with Gd. The more pure we become, the more our individual will and Gd’s Will become synchronous – that is, it becomes harder and harder to act in a way contrary to Gd’s Will. It would seem to me that one could theoretically reach a state, said to be the state of Adam before his sin, where sin is only a theoretical possibility, like the possibility of putting our hand in a fire – we could do it, but we are aware of the immediate negative consequences and we wouldn’t actually do it. At that stage of complete purity, perhaps we would be in a kind of stable equilibrium, where in fact any slight deviation is immediately and automatically corrected, rather than creating a disastrous fall.

Why did this not happen with Adam? I can only speculate of course, but apparently Gd wanted there to be a historical process of separation and reintegration – Adam’s individuating himself, as it were separating from Gd, and then becoming reintegrated through the process of t’shuvah. We, of course, are participants in this whole process, both on an individual level and as part of history. Perhaps if we can achieve this reintegration, we will have fulfilled the Divine plan for ourselves, and we may be able, finally, to stand on the peak without fear of falling.

Haftarah: Yishaya 60:1-22

The Haftarah begins with a familiar line: Arise, shine! For your light has arrived, and the glory of Hashem has shined upon you! (from L’cha Dodi, sung during the Kabbalat Shabbat service). But towards the end it speaks of the permanence of the Final Redemption:

You shall no longer have need of the sun for light of day, nor for brightness the moon to illuminate for you; rather Hashem shall be to you an eternal light, and your Gd for your glory. Never again shall your sun set, nor shall your moon be withdrawn; for Hashem shall be unto you an eternal light, and ended shall be the days of your mourning. And your people, they are all righteous; forever shall they inherit the Land; a branch of My planting, My handiwork, for Me to glory in. (19-21)

(The last verse is used as a coda to each of the 6 chapters of Pirke Avot).

Here we have a description of a state where all the people are righteous, and apparently there is no longer any danger of falling from that state, as the previous verse promises “Never again shall your sun set, etc.” Now there are two major differences between our current state and this prophecy. First, Yishaya is obviously talking about Messianic times. Although in another verse (60:22) Gd promises Israel, I will hasten it in its time. The Rabbis explain the apparent contradiction: If Israel merits, I will hasten it; if not, it [the Messianic era] will come in its time. (Sanhedrin 98a) In either case, Gd is the one Who will bring about the Messianic Era. This does not depend on our merit, for it is the fulfillment of Gd’s Plan and the very reason He created the cosmos: For My own sake, for My own sake I will do it… (48:11) (Thanks to for the references!)

Second, in this state all the people are righteous, not just a few. Therefore the wrong actions of the many will not be there to (potentially) pull the righteous off their perches. The atmosphere is much cleaner and the equilibrium appears to be stable rather than unstable. May we all merit to see such an ideal society.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Ki Tavo (When You Come In)

All the Parshas (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 parsha, 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.

1. 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 parsha in which Moses says:

“You have selected the Lord this day, to be your Gd, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and to obey Him.

יזאֶת־יְהֹוָ֥ה הֶֽאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִֽהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹהִ֜ים וְלָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֗יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֨ר חֻקָּ֧יו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָ֛יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֖יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹלֽוֹ:

And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments,

יחוַֽיהֹוָ֞ה הֶֽאֱמִֽירְךָ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם לִֽהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְלִשְׁמֹ֖ר כָּל־מִצְו‍ֹתָֽיו:

and to make you supreme, above all the nations that He made, [so that you will have] praise, a [distinguished] name and glory; and so that you will be a holy people to the Lord, your Gd, as He spoke.” ( translation)

Especially encouraging is that we are wise enough to select Gd, Totality, to be our Gd, not merely some partial value, such as the god of wind, of rain, or of money.

3. Encouragement is given by the last words of the parsha: “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. A great mystery is created by the words, “…until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” Fortunately, Gd 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 He has told Moses when the people ask who sent you, tell them “I Am That I Am.”

And, fortunately, we have examples, in our Jewish tradition, of Tzaddiks, the righteous, people whose hearts, eyes and ears were open enough to follow Torah well, although how well, I personally don’t know:

Examples of Tzaddiks are the Baal Shem Tov and Schneur Zalman: Wednesday, September 21, 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 God as Totality.

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 and to be shared. Set up huge stones plastered with lime on which you will write the Torah.

7. 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.

So this parsha 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.

Baruch HaShem!