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Torah Sparks

Parashat Ki Tavo
August 24, 2013 – 18 Elul 5773

Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 (Etz Hayim p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial: Deuteronom 27:1-29:8 (Etz Hayim p. 1146; Hertz p. 864)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22 (Etz Hayim p. 1161; Hertz p. 874)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

The Israelites are commanded to present the first fruits of their produce to the Priest at God's chosen shrine. The worshipper is then to recite a declaration familiar to modern Jews from the Passover Haggadah: "Arami oved avi… My ancestor was a wandering Aramean…" The Israelites are admonished once again to be faithful to God and God's commandments; God's reciprocal devotion to His chosen people is assured.

When they will cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, Israel is commanded to erect stone pillars, coated with plaster, on which God's laws are to be inscribed. These steles are to be dedicated with sacrifices offered on an altar of unhewn stone that the Israelites are instructed to build on Mount Ebal.

Israel prepares for the recitation of blessings and curses. The tribes of Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are assigned to Mount Gerizim for the blessing; Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to be present on Mount Ebal for the curses. Twelve specific sins are detailed, identified as worthy of being cursed, and individually acknowledged as such by a collective, national "Amen."

Blessings for compliance with God's commandments are given: "Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the issue of your womb. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail." These are followed by a further statement of largely parallel curses for Israelite disobedience to God: "Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb." This passage, called the tochechah (exhortation), includes particularly vile curses.So feared was this scriptural passage, nevertheless, that some communities have a history of skipping the section entirely. Others have required the Torah reader or shamas to accept this aliyah as a condition of employment. Still others, instead of assigning so unseemly a text as a Torah "honor," simply announced "Yaamod mi she-yirtzeh" – "Let whoever wants it come forward!" In any case, it is common to read these verses quickly and quietly, dispensing with so unpleasant a text with all possible dispatch.

The parashah concludes with a firm admonition faithfully to adhere to God's covenant, and to recognize in Israel's historic experience God's miraculous guidance and beneficent, providential care.

Theme #1: "Heads Up"

"The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom – if only you obey and faithfully observe the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day." (Deuteronomy 28:13)

Derash: Study

"'You will always be on top…' Scripture here addresses our spiritual condition. For it is natural that an individual will rise high in some aspects of life, but will be inferior to other people in other regards. This verse says you will be the head – and not the tail in any area of life: even in those areas where you are not actually the head." (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, Ha-amek Davar) "The head has the power to envision a goal and accomplish it. The head steers the rest of the animal in the proper direction. The tail is just shlepped along. There are two types of people in this world. There are leaders and followers, heads and tails. Leaders/Heads are not necessarily leaders of large groups, but they are people who decide to live their lives with goals and accomplish those goals. They are people who live with an unwavering drive of vision. They are people who live by their decisions. Tails are people who do things just because everyone else is doing it; they are just schlepped along. This can be in any arena; in sports, in a Beis Midrash, in the workplace, in the home, in school. Those who live by their convictions are leaders, even if they have no followers." (Rabbi Ephy Greene)

"According to the Torah, it is good to be the head. That's not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the ‘head' and not the ‘tail,' but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we've seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what's right. We certainly wouldn't consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children." (Rabbi Jason Miller)

"Some people are at the top of the ladder, some are in the middle, still more at the bottom, and a whole lot more don't even know there is a ladder." (Rev. Robert H. Schuler)

"Life is not meant to be easy. It's hard to take being at the top – or on the bottom." (Richard M. Nixon)

Questions for Discussion

It is significant that the first section of our verse is reformulated as a traditional Rosh Hashannah Eve blessing: "May it be Your will… that we be the head and not the tail" – often recited over a fish (or sheep!!) head. How does the rest of the verse (and broader Scriptural context) help elucidate the meaning and intention of this High Holy Day petition?

Rev. Schuler adds an important dimension to our verse (and to its converse formulation in Deuteronomy 28:44). The moral choices and spiritual selfdetermination at the heart of our parashah are already a blessing: God assures we know there is a ladder, that our own actions determine our spiritual and material well-being, that we bear responsibility for our current rung and whether we will ascend or descend in matters spiritual and moral. Is being "on top" – or constantly moving in that direction – the proper goal? Is constant spiritual ascent even possible? How do we assure upward spiritual mobility after life's inevitable slips, falls, and set-backs?

Both President Nixon and Rabbi Miller point out that the top is not always an enviable (or even admirable) position. How might we redefine our verse's reference to "the top" to clarify the meaning of the promised blessing? Who are your "top" choices as role models for your children (or yourself)?

Consider Rabbi Greene's understanding of "heads" and "tails." Should our congregations aspire to be peopled entirely by "heads" and leaders? Does that make for an unwieldy (if not uncommon!!) communal dynamic? Are there instances in which we should willingly and proudly be followers? Can "schlepping" be a sacred undertaking?!

Explore the comment of the Netziv. In at least most areas of human experience, we will find those who are more gifted and accomplished than we, as well as those who are less so. How might this itself be a blessing?

Theme #2: "The Gropes of Wrath"

"You shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark…" (Deuteronomy 28:29)

Derash: Study

"Psychological incapacitation will leave the people unable to act wisely; they will be as helpless as if they were blind. Compare Job 5:12-14: God ‘thwarts the designs of the crafty,/So that their hands cannot act wisely/…The plans of the crafty go awry./By day they encounter darkness,/At noon they grope as in the night.'" (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

"Rabbi Yossi said: ‘All my life I was troubled by this verse… What difference does it make to a blind man whether it is dark or light out? Then one time I was walking in pitch darkness, and I saw a blind man carrying a torch. I said: My son, what good does the torch do you? He answered: So long as I carry the torch, other people will see me and will save me from pits and thorns and briars.'" (BT Megillah 24B)

"Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness." (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

"In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows for those who don't." (Blaise Pascal)

"The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision." (Helen Keller)

Questions for Discussion

Is the blind groping in question necessarily to be understood as a divine punishment for faithlessness… or as the inescapable human consequence of turning our back on God and His expectations of us?

What is the nature of the darkness threatened (or promised) by our verse? Selfishness? Loss of faith? Narrowness of perspective, vision, insight, understanding? "Psychological incapacitation"?

How does Rabbi Yossi help to illuminate our verse? To what do his "pits, thorns, and briars" refer in the analogy? Who are the helpful, sighted strangers in this metaphor? To whom do we most productively turn for guidance and protection in our own (varying degrees of) spiritual blindness?

Is the verse really as paradoxical as Rabbi Yossi originally thought? Don't the blind indeed experience a perceived darkness? Doesn't this make the verse's threat all the more accurate? We, too, will be lost in what we only perceive to be darkness, while in actuality surrounded by the beautiful, miraculous, and enlightened.

Is Pascal's insight an indictment of faith as merely subjective? Or a critique of the limited spiritual capacity of human beings? How might Helen Keller respond to Pascal (and to Rabbi Yossi!)?

Historic Note

Parashat Ki Tavo, read on August 24, 2013, includes among its curses: "The Lord will afflict you at the knees and thighs with a severe inflammation, from which you shall never recover – from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head" (28:35). On August 24, 1962, Brooklyn Dodger coach Leo Durocher suffered a near-fatal allergic reaction to a penicillin injection while in the clubhouse at the Polo Grounds.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Today, 18 Elul (also called "Chai Elul") is celebrated by Chassidim as the birthday of the "two great luminaries" – Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, the founder of Chabad. Chassidim wish each other "Good Yuntiff" and mark the occasion by conducting joyous gatherings called farbrengen. Solomon Schechter's Jewish name – Schneur Zalman – reflects his family roots in the Chabad tradition, and the breadth of its founder's impact.

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