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Parashat Ki Tavo 5780 — 09/05/2020

Parashat Ki Tavo 5780 — 09/05/2020

Devarim 26:1-29:8

You have glorified Hashem today to be a Gd for you, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His decrees, His commandments, and His statutes, and to listen to [alt: to hear] His Voice. (26:17)

The verb root shin-mem-ayin has the meanings “to hear,” “to listen to” (both in the sense of to pay attention to what is being spoken, and to obey, similar to the English uses of the verb), “to obey” and “to understand.” We will see that these various translations can all be applied to the quoted verses, and will give us insights on different levels.

His decrees, refers to mitzvot that have no known reason, His commandments refers to mitzvot that the intellect also accepts as logical, and His statutes refers to laws that Hashem conveyed for judging between two people [RAR: e.g. monetary cases], and listen to His Voice, refers to Torah study. Now, the verse was particular to say to His Voice [and not “to Him”] in accordance with what [the Sages], of blessed memory, say (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:4) From where do we know that if one hears Torah from the mouth of even a minor scholar it is as though he heard it from the mouth of the Almighty? For it is written (15:5), “If you will listen to the voice of Hashem, your Gd.”

The verse instructs regarding Torah study last, to make us aware that even if a person reached the point of knowing all that it says in Torah and has fulfilled it, he should nonetheless not say, “Why should I study Torah? If it is to know what I, a Jew, shall do, why, I know and fulfill all the words of Hashem!” Rather, despite this the verse requires Torah study… because the mitzvah of Torah study is a mitzvah in its own right…

I think the point Or haChaim is emphasizing here is that Torah study is not merely instrumental – it is something that is worthwhile in its own right. It is an end, not just a means to an end. But if we think of Torah study the way we normally do, as either an academic type study, or even a course in Jewish law that we take so that we can fulfill the mitzvot, then while what we do is indeed worthwhile, we miss the whole point of Torah study.

Perhaps the problem lies in the use of the word “study.” Interestingly, the verb root lamed-mem-dalet can mean “to study” or “to learn.” If you listen to people in a Yeshiva (in an English-speaking country), they never use the term “Torah study.” One always speaks of “learning” Torah. Maybe this means that they’re very optimistic – most people hope that the outcome of study is learning, but that is by no means guaranteed. The other possibility is that the very method of Torah “study” leads automatically to “learning.” Why is this study different from all other studies?

Returning to our verse, we see that there is no direct mention of Torah study – rather it is described as hearing / listening to Gd’s Voice. How can we listen to Gd’s Voice? On a superficial level, the words of Torah that we have are Gd’s Voice speaking to us from the parchment. This would only be comprehensible academically, if that were all it is. However, I think there is a lot more to it. Gd’s “speech” is, of course, Gd’s creative activity – Gd’s spoke and the creation came into existence. So “hearing Gd’s Voice” must be more than just an intellectual conception of the superficial meaning of the words of the Torah we have in front of us.

Now we have analyzed that behind the Torah that we have from Moshe Rabbeinu is a “supernal Torah” which is the blueprint of creation, as we read in the Zohar, “Gd looked into the Torah and created.” This Torah contains within it all the laws of nature that govern creation, and is not anything separate from Gd. In the words of the Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed I:68, trans. Shlomo Pines edition, Chicago, 1963):

Now when it is demonstrated that Gd…. is an intellect in actu and that there is absolutely no potentiality in Him…. so that He is not by way of sometimes apprehending and sometimes not apprehending, but is always an intellect in actu, it follows necessarily that He and the thing apprehended are one thing, which is His essence. Moreover, the act of apprehension owing to which He is said to be an intellectually cognizing subject is in itself the intellect, which is His essence. Accordingly He is always the intellect as well as the intellectually cognizing subject and the intellectually cognized object. It is accordingly also clear [this]…. does not hold good with reference to the Creator only, but also with reference to every intellect. Thus in us too, the intellectually cognizing subject, the intellect, and the intellectually cognized object, are one and the same thing wherever we have an intellect in actu.

I think Rambam is saying two important things here. First, Gd is the Knower, and in all cases He is one with the Known object and with the process of knowing. Gd is the only reality, and He obviously has consciousness (because we, whom He created, have consciousness), and He has only Himself to be conscious of. It is this self-referral knowing on Gd’s part, I believe, that is this “supernal Torah,” and it contains the totality of Gd’s Will or design for creation.

The second point is more startling – Rambam asserts that human beings have the capability, at least on a temporary basis, to experience this unity of Knower, Known and Knowledge. We have analyzed that if we can allow the mind to settle down and transcend thought altogether, that this state of pure consciousness would in fact be a unified state where the consciousness, having become infinite, is in fact Knower, Known and Knowledge. However, this state is temporary, and we return to the finite state of consciousness in order to interact with the finite world.

With repeated experience of this transcendental consciousness, we are able to perceive its internal, virtual structure more acutely, and at the same time our consciousness becomes more in tune with this structure. This, in my opinion, is the essence of Torah study, and its result is that our actions, which are based on our consciousness, are in accord with Torah, with Gd’s Will.

Torah study, thus understood, is instrumental, in that it cultures the awareness to perform Gd’s Will spontaneously, and it is also an end in itself, as it raises life to the pinnacle of human achievement and reunites our individuality with its universal basis. It is the basis of all the blessings of our parashah, and its neglect leads to all the negativity and curses, for neglect of Torah is neglect of the full value of what we are in essence. As the Days of Awe approach, let us commit ourselves to the maximum extent possible, to become Torah and enjoy the bounty Gd wants to shower upon us.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Ki Tavo

All the Parshahs (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), Gd, through Moses, is preparing the Children of Israel to enter the Promised Land. Torah is for everyone, for 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 G-d 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 Lord this day, and He has selected you.” This means whenever we move towards 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 Levis — the teachers and priests. Moses rejoiced over this, “…until this day, the Lord 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, 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 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, also 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 R. Schneur Zalman [of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe]: September 7, this coming Monday, 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. We are encouraged because Gd only commands us to do what we are able to do and so this commandment assures us that we will not be living bare-bones lives with not a penny to spare but we will have enough to share.

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. And it is our good actions that make Torah in our hearts, tablets of Joy and Love, not of stone.

8. Fortunately, even the curses that will be spoken from Mt. Ebal (as proclaimed in Parshah Re’eh) 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!