This week’s Parsha, Ki Tavo, is full of both blessings and curses. The curses are vivid and frightening, and one rabbi referred to them as55 consecutive verses of nightmarish misery and torture. Many of We are cursed with confusion and bewilderment, which Rashi translates literally as a “clogging of the heart.” We are told that “you will grope at midday, as the blind man gropes in the dark.” Ki Tavo tells us that the strong and high walls and fortresses of our cities will all collapse, and I can’t help but think that this is meant in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense because we no longer have any real bearings. Ki Tavo even threatens us with insanity: “You will go insane”—the Hebrew word used here is MESHUGAH—and that “you will be in fear in your life.” You will have a trembling heart, dashed hopes, and you will not be calm. To me, one of the worst curses is that “you will not be able to believe that this is your life.” Rambam says that the worst is that no one will even want to buy you as slaves.
There is a lot of tradition related to this Parsha. One is that the curses are read very quietly and very quickly—the obvious message here is that no one wants to spend much time on these terrible threats. There’s a story that the son of a rabbi had to laen Ki Tavo one Shabbat when his father was ill. The son later had to be hospitalized for shock and high blood pressure. The people asked him, “You hear this Parsha every year. Why would it affect you now?” And he answered, “When my father reads it, I can’t hear the curses.” Another tradition is that a number of rabbis take the curses and try to argue that they have all come true for the Jewish people. Some rabbis even single out the Holocaust and claim that Ki Tavo predicts it.
This portion is also known as the to chechah, or rebuke. It is always read in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah and is intended to alert us to the realities of life so that we can do some soul-searching and introspection in order to improve our behavior before the coming Days of Judgement.
It’s incredible that Ki Tavo represents almost the very last words that Moshe will share with the Jewish people. And there are only 14 lines of blessings, in contrast with the 55. But no matter what we think about why these curses are so lengthy and so harsh, we cannot ignore the fact that we are still here today, and our enemies have not destroyed us and scattered our ashes to the winds. We can still experience the joys we associate with Judaism, however challenging it may be to be a good Jew.
As Moshe tells the Israelites, only today—after forty years in the desert have they attained a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.
AND MAY IT BE SO FOR ALL OF US.
The Torah tells us that an individual can be exempted from army service if he is a newlywed (24:5). The Sages derive that this one-year exemption applies also to someone who has moved into a new house, or redeemed a new vineyard, so that he is able to enjoy its produce for the first time. It is stated that he should spend the first year of marriage in rejoicing with his wife. This is a very important lesson that a loving and happy relationship can be the basis upon which marriage is built. We do realize that it is necessary to nurture any close relationship that we have with another individual. No relationship is closer between two individuals than the sanctity of the marriage relationship of a husband and wife. When the husband will dedicate himself to making his wife happy, this will go a long way in that first year to making it habitual so that it will permeate the total length of the marriage for decades and decades. A husband who dedicates himself to his wife will benefit greatly when she returns the favor and dedicates herself to the happiness of her husband. This way of thinking will guarantee that the future of their marriage will be one of stability and mutual caring.
The Torah states that when it comes to harvesting olives, a person is not required to go on a ladder; he will have such an abundance of produce, with God’s blessing, that he will just have to stand on the ground and beat the branches with a stick and the olives will fall to the ground. “Do not remove all the splendor behind you.” The literal interpretation means: do not take off all the olives – leave some of them on the tree so that poor people can have some. Rabbeinu Bachya expounds on the Midrashic idea of not being over glorified and boasting of your financial status. When you give charity and help poor people, do not look for credit. Instead you should have an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness to Hashem that He has provided for you and you are able to be a giver and not a taker. Do not look for credit should be a message for many other mitzvot that we perform as well.
Haftorat Ki Taytzai:
The Jewish people have suffered from an insecurity about the future. With the cloud of anti-Semitism that is always hovering about, the Jew is extremely competitive in his or her fight for survival. Each ray of sunshine is met with caution because we know how easily our hopes can be dashed. We fear redemption because any sense of redemption is usually proved to be premature. No redemption has been complete and therefore we fear them to be false or at best, temporary. (Radak on Isaiah 54:4). The great fear that the prophet sees is that the Jewish people will develop a redemption complex. Even when it is actually beginning, the Jew will have a difficult time bringing himself or herself to believe that it is happening. Too many unfulfilled dreams will breed a heart that is incapable of dreaming and hoping. We must never lose Tikvah, hope, that we will all be ultimately redeemed.
There are so many troubling parts of the Torah, and we struggle to interpret them. The laws about owning slaves, for example, are hard to grapple with, even if they were probably pretty progressive for their time. In addition, many of the Torah’s preachings about women might give us pause (to say the least). And should we really stone the disobedient child? Do we genuinely believe that idolaters should not be allowed to live? I have no doubt that we could provide many more such examples.
These concepts and principles force us to interpret the Torah through a modern lens. And rabbis over the centuries have struggled to do that as well. And, God willing, centuries of future Jews will face the same intellectual and spiritual challenge.
But this week’s parsha has a very modern feel to it. Much of SHOFTIM is devoted to JUSTICE. Justice justice shall you pursue. The very repetition of the word makes clear how important a concept it is. And Shoftim gives us clear guidelines not only for how kings should be appointed over a people but also about limitations on the king’s behavior. These are VERY radical ideas.
It wasn’t that long ago that many scholars and politicians defended what has been called the DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGS. That idea meant that the King was the direct descendent of God, and that God had actually APPOINTED the king. What would that mean? Well, it would mean that to question a king is literally to question GOD. It would also mean that the king had absolute authority over his people—in other words, there were no limits to what a king could do. And, finally, the idea of the divine right of kings meant that the successor to the throne was based on one’s ancestry. Any idiot son could (and DID!) lay claim to the throne. And that was not at all unusual.
It was only in the 1600s and 1700s that real opposition to this idea became forceful. Think about THAT—only four or five hundred years ago radical thinkers challenged the idea that God appoints kings.
But the Torah has something to say about that LONG before the 1600s. In parshat Shoftim, there are definite limits on a king’s power. First, one’s king has to be a “kinsman,” not a foreigner. A king, we are told, should not keep too many horses or have too many wives. In other words, kings should not be distracted by wealth or romance. As the Torah tells us, “He shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.” Even our own rulers (think about Shlomo) didn’t always follow those principles.
And perhaps the most radical idea of all is that Shoftim tells us that the king should always keep a copy of the Torah by his side. “Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life.” What a powerful idea—this passage is instructing the king on how to rule. This passage is telling the king (and all of us) that rule cannot be arbitrary, that rule must be based on teaching, on scripture, on the Torah. So that we know that there is always something higher than the king. The Torah (and God) limit what the king can and cannot do; and that’s a very radical idea, not only for the time when it was written but even for today.
This week’s parsha—EIKEV—is Moses’s final address to the Jewish people. He’s pretty long-winded—this begins on the first day of Sheevat and concludes 37 days later on the seventh of Adar, the day of Moses’s death. There’s quite a sense of urgency here; he reminds the people of their previous sins—of the Golden Calf, of Korach’s rebellion, of the spies who lack faith. He’s worried, for sure, and with good reason. As he tells them, “you have been rebelling against the Lord since the day I became acquainted with you.” I’m not sure that this is the best pedagogy (I know I don’t become better when I’m told about all the things I did wrong), but I’m guessing that Moses can’t imagine his people without him. I’m sure that he feels that he has to do his best to instill in this “stiff-necked” people the importance not only of NOT sinning but also of doing positive mitzvot and of creating a Jewish identity for future generations. No doubt he mourns the fact that he cannot be part of that future. Hence this death-bed soliloquy.
Most commentators believe that this parsha includes two negative commandments and six positive ones. The positive ones include the duty to bless God for the food we receive; from this we take the Birkhat ha-mazon, the blessing after meals. We are also commanded in this parsha to associate with Torah scholars and to invoke the name of the Lord when we swear an oath. My personal favorite of these positive commandments is the mitzvah to love the convert to Judaism.
I want to look for a moment at the second word of this parsha, the word that gives this parsha its name: EIKEV. Most translations, including our own here, translate EIKEV as “IF.” Some go a little further and translate EIKEV as “because” or “in exchange for,” meaning that if you do X, then God will give you Y, presumably IN EXCHANGE FOR your obedience and your faith. But it’s also worth noting that there is another AKEIV—different spelling but same pronunciation –and that AKEIV means HEEL.
Think about the HEEL. It is the part of the body that is most in touch with the ground. It is the true work-horse of the human being.
Aikev/Ekev might represent a concrete way to remind us that it’s the small things that count. The little things under foot. It’s the mitzvot that we may tend to forget—perhaps the ones that aren’t quite so colorful—that matter in the day-to-day. Not likely that we’re rushing to kill anyone, for example, but grace after meals is something we might cheat on if we’re in a hurry or just not in the mood. If we take care of our heels, the rest of the body may follow. Similarly, if we take care of the smaller mitzvot, the bigger ones might follow. It’s a nice concept. Thoreau once said “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Perhaps that’s why we can connect EIKEV—because—and AKEIV—heel. Connecting these concepts would suggest that nothing is really mundane in a Jewish life and that the so-called small mitzvot are not so small at all.
I remember a brilliant speech I heard years ago in a local Temple delivered by Rabbi Harold Kushner. The topic of that talk was “what have the Jewish people given to humankind?” Of course, he spent a good deal of time discussing monotheism, and when we read Parshiyot like Eikev, we can see just how challenging the idea of ONE GOD must have been to the early Jewish people. But Rabbi Kushner also cited another major gift of Judaism—namely that Judaism makes the secular or the mundane the divine. Secular activities like eating, working, farming our crops, repaying a debt, even enjoying sex—these are all spiritual activities for Judaism. Each is imbued with a divine aspect, and the more we see and feel that spiritual component, the more we embrace Judaism and the more we reach toward God.
So—with a debt to Parsha Eikev—we add the HEEL to the revered HEAD and the beloved HEART. Doing so means that we recognize that we walk on this earth even as we look towards the heavens.