Drash for Ki Tavo 5781

By Gregg Kinkley

Sometimes, being assigned a drash rather than waiting for one you intentionally select ends up being a boon rather than a burden.  That was certainly the case here.  I had two preconceptions about this important parashah that I found were both wrong upon closer examination:

  1. Beginning of the End. I considered Ki Tavo just another parashah in Devarim that was in no other way remarkable except for containing the infamous Tokhekha (the curses). Instead, I find that it is the important beginning of the end of Moses’ narrative to Am Yisrael, his final charge to the people as they enter the Promised Land.

 

  1. House Without a Ki. I had lumped Ki Tavo in with Ki Teitzei (which immediately precedes it) as just another parashah full of “ki’s”. I find instead that Ki Tavo is not like other “Ki’s”: whereas in Ki Teitzei many paragraphs begin with that multivalent conjunction “ki,” Ki Tavo importantly begins with V’hayah ki tavo; “and it will be WHEN (not IF) you come into the land that HaShem has given you…”.  The conclusion that you will enter the Land is already implicit: it is rather time to prepare for what must be done now that the Land will be occupied.

 

Many a drash has focused on the unusual or unexpected use of motion verbs in Hebrew (e.g., just two parashiyot hence, Vayelekh Moshe stresses Moses’ distancing himself from the people; in Lekh Lkha, the concept of going from the known to the unknown is alluded to).  Here in Ki Tavo, we may ask why a verb of motion indicating direction towards the speaker (“to come”) is used, when Moses is pointedly being left behind and will not join his Instructed People in the Land.   The sense of the verb Tavo here is not just “come” but “enter to reside”; an intentional change of state on the part of the addressed, an immersion.  The phrase Ki Tavo therefore is not describing action from the point of view of the speaker, but rather from the vantage and psychological state of the referent: the people.

My approach to this discussion of Ki Tavo, in an attempt not only to elucidate but also to unify my remarks, will be to follow the old rabbinic method of exegesis known by the acronym PaRDeS (“paradise”): Pshat (surface meaning); Remez (metaphorical allusion);  Drash (moralistic commentary); and Sod (deep or esoteric meaning).

 

Pshat: a list of what happens in this parashah

 

  1. Bikkurim: law of first fruits (with its verbal formula)
  2. Maaser: law of tithes (with its verbal formula)
  3. Exchange of vows (People to HaShem; HaShem to People)
  4. Torah chiseled on rock coated with plaster
  5. Chorus of Warnings with Stereo Amens from Gerizim and Eival
  6. List of Blessings (Good Results)
  7. List of Curses (Bad Results)
  8. Summary

 

On the Pshat level we are only looking at themes, at actions, at the continuity

of the text/story.  Although some interesting things are happening, they do not all appear extrinsically related.  For those connections we need to search further, deeper.

 

Remez: the wedding

 

Given the rather cut-and-dried ordering of the contents of this entire parashah, the individual elements, both in their substance and their order, may at first appear arbitrary and rambling.  On deeper reflection, one can begin to discern a familiar pattern – a remez or allusion to a sanctification, a kiddushin: a wedding between HaShem and His People.

 

1:  Bikkurim, or the law of first fruits, is about humanity recognizing what HaShem has given us: that which we planted was given to us by Him, and not earned from our own efforts alone.  The ceremonial verbal formula accompanying the bikkurim offering stresses our humble beginnings (“my father was a wandering Aramean”) and how we were snatched from this bootless, itinerant fate to become land-owning, crop-cultivating stewards of the Land through His mercy.  This then is what the Groom brings to the marriage: the bride price, expressed as an obligation between God and Man.

 

2:  Maaser, or the law of the tithe, is set forth to remind us of the duties between and among the people: not only to the priestly class, but also to the widow and orphan.  It too is accompanied by a verbal formula, an affidavit of sorts, making the declarer swear that he has kept HaShem’s laws and not forgotten to give what must be given, do what must be done.  Since this is of fiscal benefit to the people and society as a whole, this is an allusion to the money the bride brings with her into the union with HaShem – the dowery.

 

  1. The exchange of vows found in Devarim 26:17 – 18:

 

[17] You have avouched ( (האמרתthe Lord this day to be your God, and that you would

walk in His ways, and keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances,

and hearken to His voice. [18] And the Lord has avouched you ( (האמירךthis day to be His own treasure, as He has promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments.

 

How very much like the exchange of vows at a wedding this reads: “I take thee, HaShem, to be my God; and I take thee, Israel, to my treasured people.”  Here the partition between the pshat narrative and the remez seems to fade away, the meaning of the words being so striking and fraught.

 

  1. When the text moves immediately on to describe a rock coated with plaster upon which the Torah is to be engraved, it seems that the conversation has indeed shifted dramatically – but in the world of remez this is but the next logical step: the lithic Torah stands as an eternal ketubah given by HaShem to his people, the seal of the sanctification. The laws and duties expressed therein protect the people and offer an eternal blessing.

 

  1. The chorus of warnings (“arur”) enunciated by the Levi’im, accompanied by the rest of Israel intoning a choral “amen,” reminds one of a typical wedding scenario where the officiant charges the couple with the rules and expectations of the parties in that holy estate, while the crowd of well-wishers, onlookers, and family all participate in praise and approval. And even though the text involved here is a selection of very negative things, the subject matter is relevant to marriage: laws of authority within the estate (man/God, parent/child, therefore man-wife – forgive the unintentional sexism implicit here); laws of sexual purity and taboos; laws of respect for property not one’s own (as two enter from an individual existence into a true partnership).

 

  1. The list of blessings that occur right after the “arurs” represents the Sheva’ Berachot of the wedding ceremony – quite a few more than seven to be sure, but the allusion is palpable.

 

Seen as an allusion to a holy union with HaShem, the topics and ordering of this parashah now fall into place.

 

Drash:  Sotah 35b

 

In this delightful sugya in the Talmud, R. Yehudah and R. Shimon, perennial opponents when it comes to arguing dikduk from Torah, consider the purport and consequences of the exact words of the Torah where it is commanded that the people engrave the words of Torah on the rock covered with plaster:

 

ת״ר כיצד כתבו ישראל את התורה רבי יהודה אומר על גבי אבנים כתבוה שנאמר וכתבת על האבנים את כל דברי התורה הזאת וגו׳ ואחר כך סדו אותן בסיד אמר לו רבי שמעון לדבריך היאך למדו אומות של אותו הזמן תורה אמר לו בינה יתירה נתן בהם הקב״ה ושיגרו נוטירין שלהן וקילפו את הסיד והשיאוה

 

“The Rabbis taught in a baraisa: How did Israel inscribe the Torah? Rabbi Yehudah says they inscribed it on the stones, as it is stated: and you shall inscribe on the stones all the words of this Torah, and afterwards they coated them with plaster. Rabbi Shimon said to him: according to your words, how did the nations of that time learn Torah? (the inscription was covered up by the plaster according to R. Yehudah)  Rabbi Yehudah replied: The Holy One Blessed be He endowed them with an extra measure of insight and they sent their scribes who peeled off the plaster and carried it away (i.e., a plaster cast copy in reverse of the inscription).”

 

From just these few verses of Torah, the Rabbis picked a fight over what seemed to them a contradiction in the literal reading of the process for incising the Torah on the rocks: is the chiseling to be done on the rocks directly, so that the plaster would be applied over the rock after the chiseling, obscuring the words of Torah, or do we cover the rock first with plaster and then chisel through the plaster?

 

The exegetical significance of this little extract centers around what it means to publish the Torah, to whom it is published, and by what means.  Do we hide the Torah from the Nations, or are we commanded to spread it?  And if we are to spread it, how?  Rabbi Yehudah’s clever solution to Rabbi Shimon’s query (which, note, implies that he already expects it to be the duty of Jews to teach (or at least publish) Torah to the Nations, as he is concerned how that will happen if the words are plastered over) is that the Nations peel off the plaster, leaving in their hands what amounts to a reverse carbon copy, a plaster cast, of the Torah which they can “carry away” (assumedly to study).  On an exegetical level, we then see that the Torah is to be given to the Nations, but separated from the Rock (i.e., HaShem, its direct Source) and given indirectly (printing from reverse image).  The people Israel, on the other hand, have the original and the relationship with the Author: we have what is revealed and what is hidden!

 

Sod: the deeper structure of the parashah

 

Dichotomous revelation.  We have seen at the beginning of this parashah that the laws of bikkurim are given, followed by an oral formula.  The laws of maaser are then given, also with a corresponding oral formula.

 

The dichotomies here are salient:

 

  1. dues owed to HaShem (bikkurim) versus dues owed to Man (maaser to the priestly class, and alms to the poor on the third year of maaser).

 

  1. the need for an oral component (the formula) to the written requirement for both taxes.

 

  1. the dichotomy of the written law (Torah in plaster) and the oral expression of it (the Amen chorus on the Mounts).

 

This appears to be using staged elements to represent the trademark Jewish approach to divine law: a Written Law as explained and implemented by an Oral law.  The template for the system that would be laid down in the Mishnah and Gemara are hinted at right here in the structure of the enunciation of the laws of Ki Tavo.

 

The Chorus of Arurs.  When the Levites announced the specialized Arurs to the people arrayed on Mounts Gerizim and Eival, (along with the people’s amen), they were phrased as curses, but they were substantively nothing less than lo taasehs or negative commandments.  This reminds us of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai (another marriage metaphor for the Jewish people), but this time, in this telling, there are twelve commandments (the number of the tribes represented on the Mounts) rather than ten; they are told by the priestly class (God’s sheliach or agent on Earth) rather than HaShem Himself; and they are all negative commandments, rather than only half of them so.

 

Below is a list summarizing the general content of each of the twelve arurs into five categories, with the corresponding or relevant number of the Ten Commandments after each:

 

The Arurim:

 

  • Authority: man to God, children to parent (#2, #5)
  • Justice system for haves and have nots (#3, #9)
  • Sex taboos (#7, #10)
  • Two types of murder: secret and for hire (#6, #8)
  • The seal: follow this law and be bound by it (#1)

 

1 I am the Lord thy God
2 Thou shalt have no other gods before me
2 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
3 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
4 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
5 Honour thy father and thy mother
6 Thou shalt not murder
7 Thou shalt not commit adultery
8 Thou shalt not steal (understood as kidnapping)
9 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour
10 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house
10 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife
10 or his slaves, or his animals, or anything of thy neighbour

 

The Blessings and the Curses.  It is important to note that these blessings and curses read like consequences, not like laws (unlike the arurs on the Mounts that precede them).  “If you follow all these commandments, then… (the blessings); but if you do not follow these commandments, then… (the curses).”

 

This manner of pronouncement reveals HaShem’s Laws not as criminal and civil laws of Man (“don’t do that;” “do that”) but rather as acts and their consequences as Laws of Nature (imagine the Law of Gravity being stated as Don’t float rather than If you let go of an object then it will fall).

 

Why so much repetition here?  Why must every consequence be stated twice and in a positive/negative format?  This is responsive to the halakhic requirement for the administration of the legal system on the people: no one can be held liable for the commission of an act that is the subject of a negative commandment unless he or she is (1) made to realize at that moment that the contemplated behavior is proscribed and (2) made aware of what the punishment will be should he or she commit the act.  Having now fulfilled this requirement through the blessings and curses, the Law is now made binding on all the people through this form of mass publication.

 

The vows.  The He’amars (“caused or made to say”: “spoken for”; “avouched”)  Note the curious syntax of the two verses where the exchange of vows between HaShem and the People is made:

 

Et Adonai he’emarta hayom   You avow the Lord today …

V’adonai he’emirkha hayom   And the Lord avows you today…

 

The first vow, made by the people, has a syntax one would expect to find only in Klingon (!): Object, Verb, Subject; while the vow HaShem makes to the people has the expected order, at least by English standards, of Subject, Verb, Object.  While Biblical Hebrew is often analyzed as “verb initial,” and without getting into secular scientific arguments of Chomskyan underlying structure, I think it fair to say that the first vow stands out as unusual, inasmuch as it begins with the grammatical particle signaling a definite direct object – not one’s first choice for beginning a sentence, irrespective of matters of stress.  On the level of Sod, this could stand as a reminder that HaShem is always first, even when we perceive ourselves as the actor: He is always the Prime Cause.

 

And let us say, Amein.

 

 

בס״ד

 

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