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The God of Ki Tavo and Our God

  • The God of Ki Tavo and Our God

    Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
D'var Torah By: 

Years ago, while concluding Friday night services, I turned, as I always do, to the Mourner's Kaddish. To my utter dismay, scribbled across the middle of the page was the imprecation "To hell with the world." (In fact, the unknown author used a much harsher phrase that is unprintable here.) After getting over the initial shock of seeing my siddur desecrated, I couldn't help but note the stunning irony: Scrawled over words of blessing and the affirmation of God's omnipresence were the dark tentacles of a curse.

And this is the very point of the above anecdote, although not of the anonymous blasphemer, namely, our lives are never static, never one color or one dimension. At any given moment, we are reaping the bounty of blessing while simultaneously staring straight into the eyes of the Angel of Death. Both blessings and curses are our companions in this world.

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, tries to make sense of this phenomenon. It is known as one of the two tocheichah [rebuke] texts, the other being B'chukotai. It begins with a number of beautiful blessings (Deuteronomy 28:3-14) that express simple, bucolic hopefulness, for example, "Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country" (Deuteronomy 28:3) and "Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings." (Deuteronomy 28:6) There are also blessings for fertile fields and wombs as well as for rain.

These gentle blessings are followed by the tocheichah, a long list of curses (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), whose number (traditionally the rabbis count ninety-eight of them!), ferocity, and sheer horror swallow up the delicate and kind blessings in the same way that the emaciated cows devoured the fat ones in Pharaoh's dreams. They state that death, disease, destruction, cannibalism, servitude, outliving one's children, pestilence, and untold suffering will all surely descend upon us if we do not listen to God and obey the mitzvot.

Trying to ascertain from where these blessings and curses come is a complicated business. Of course, our biblical author posits a very straightforward bromide: If you obey God, the Holy One will bless you; if you disobey God, the Holy One will curse you. Many people believed and still believe in this form of reward and punishment-in a mighty, awesome, and terrifying God. However, I have to believe that there always were (and still are) more than a few people who did not accept this moral calculus. They knew that they rarely deserved the dire straits through which they have passed or, for that matter, the great success they may have achieved.

We go through life with the blessings and the curses. Sometimes the curses blot out the blessings and sometimes the blessings shine with a light so intense that the curses seem to shrink and fade away. But the blessings and the curses are always present. That is our existential truth. And what helps us keep our balance is the knowledge of God's loving presence in our lives and the strength we derive from that love.

When I turn to the Mourner's Kaddish all these years later, I still notice the unerased epithet scrawled over the Aramaic words of praise. But very quickly, the words of the Kaddish cast the curse into oblivion. Sure the pencil markings are still there in the background. But the curse's power is, at least for the moment, null and void.

So as we arrive at this week's parashah on the cusp of the New Year, we recall the strict and eternal antiquarian Judge of Ki Tavo. But we also confidently proclaim that our God is not the Ki Tavo-style God who would "delight in causing you to perish and in wiping you out." (Deuteronomy 28:63) No, the God to whom we pray is not the fierce, vengeful warrior of the curse. The God to whom I pray is a nurturing, loving, and forgiving God who gives us strength and hope and who enables me to count my days-as well as my blessings-to attain a heart of wisdom.

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah
Davar Acher By: 
Jamie S. Korngold

It was early spring, and the entire fifth grade of our local day school climbed into the big yellow school buses for the annual field trip to the mountains. As we wound our way out of the city, the back of the bus filled with song: "Oh, Way Out There I Saw a Bear" led easily into "Miriam's Song."

An hour later, we turned off the highway onto a smaller road, which led out of the valley and into the mountains. As we rounded a corner and entered the canyon, we were startled by the beauty of the scene before us. The exposed gray rock of the mountains rose directly up from the river, which was full and fast, roaring with winter melt-off. The light green leaves of the aspens created a sharp contrast against the blue Alberta sky.

As we entered the canyon, a hush filled the bus-the quiet of earnest appreciation. And then it began, spontaneously. First a faint sound from the back of the bus and soon building, building, until all of the fifth graders were singing loudly and clearly, Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.

Oh, the wonder of that moment! The joy of knowing that these children had found a Jewish vocabulary with which to express themselves! My delight in realizing that in expressing their appreciation for the creation that surrounded us, they were also able to affirm their connection to Adonai.

I was reminded of that experience as I was studying Parashat Ki Tavo. When we look at the introductory passages to the blessings and the curses, our attention is called to the slight difference between the two. The opening of the blessings passage reads: "Now, if you obey [im shamo-a tishma ] Adonai your God to observe faithfully all God's commandments…." (Deuteronomy 28:1) The opening of the curses passage reads: "But if you do not obey [lo tishma] Adonai your God and observe faithfully all God's commandments...." (Deuteronomy 28:15) The blessings section has the additional word shamo-a, implying an emphasis in the imperative to obey or to hearken.

Why the difference? The commentators explain that the additional imperative reminds us that once we start to do mitzvot, it then becomes easier to do them. Maimonides writes: "The more one is drawn after the paths of wisdom and justice, the more one longs for them and desires them." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T'shuvah 6:5) Rashi explains further: "And now if you will diligently hearken, that is, take it upon yourselves, it will henceforth come easy to you, for all beginnings are difficult." (Rashi on Exodus 19:5) The Jewish education received and the community engendered by the day school our children attend enable them to express themselves in a Jewish way. Saying the Sh'ma comes naturally to them. How I applaud our day schools, camps, and youth groups, which enable our youth to develop their Jewish identities and, in turn, foster Jewish action!

Recently, two members of our synagogue youth group shaved their heads to raise money for the Cancer Society. They collected over $1,200. But what impressed me most was that they chose to link their action to Mitzvah Day. In their minds, they were fulfilling the mitzvah to care for the sick, bikur cholim. Why were they able to make this connection? They had learned about bikur cholim during their summers at Camp George and had incorporated that study into their lives. Their ability to link study to action was, to me, the major significance of their action.

On the way back from the mountains, tired from a day of hiking and learning, our children again joined together in song: "Mitzvah goreret mitzvah," "One mitzvah leads to another," they sang. Parashat Ki Tavo reminds us how important it is to create opportunities for mitzvah goreret mitzvah, for one mitzvah to lead to another.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Which mitzvot that create opportunities for doing other mitzvot do you incorporate into your life?
  2. How does the study of Torah lead to other mitzvot? Do you think that the study of Torah is more important than the fulfillment of other mitzvot?
Reference Materials: 

Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,508–1,537; Revised Edition, pp. 1,347–1,367;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,191–1,216