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Parashat Ki Tavo
September 5, 2015 – 21 Elul 5775

Annual (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8): Etz Hayim p. 1140; Hertz p. 859
Triennial (Deuteronomy 26:12-28:6): Etz Hayim p. 1142; Hertz p. 860
Haftarah (Isaiah 60:1-22): Etz Hayim p. 1161; Hertz p. 874

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Israelites in the Promised Land will be required to bring some of their first fruits to the priests and to declare their gratitude to God for the blessings bestowed throughout history. They must also declare that they have tithed appropriately.

The Israelites must literally put the commandments into stone.

A ceremony is described in which the people must gather between two mountains and hear of sins that take place in private, many of them sexual in nature.

If God’s commandments are fulfilled, Israel will be blessed in many ways. If they are not, Israel will be punished in dozens of ways, leading to their return to slavery in Egypt.

Moses reminds the people of the many miracles God performed during the years of wandering in the wilderness, including the defeat of several peoples.


Theme #1: Peaks and Valleys

After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. (Deuteronomy 27:12-13)

The text sets the stage for a grand pronouncement of specific curses, an event that is to take place inside the Promised Land.

[These curses apply to] those who say that it is not necessary to observe the commandments of the Lord in practice, claiming that the important thing is that one should understand their meaning and that one should be good “in one’s heart,” and nothing more. -- Ketav Sofer

There are no corresponding proclamations of “Blessed” [in the section of curses between the mountains], nor, according to common sense, would it be reasonable to contrast these verses with blessings, save for the last one; for just because a person does not, for example, lie with his mother-in-law does not mean he is blessed. -- Menahem Ben-Yashar, “The Covenant at Shechem”, from A Divinely Given Torah in Our Day and Age, Volume I

Even if they had accepted only the seven Noahide laws they would not have been driven out. -- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch 

Questions for Discussion:

Ketav Sofer makes an argument for the need to follow Halakhah, stressing that Judaism (and religion in general) is about far more than "just being a good person." How do we respond to those who say that Jewish law, other than its ethical maxims, is largely unnecessary? How does following Jewish law enable us to act ethically? Are there times when we might act unethically in the pursuit of following Jewish law?

Ben-Yashar notes that the proclamations on the mountain are weighted toward the negative because avoiding many of the curses is not necessarily a great accomplishment. In a sense, the structure of the curses discourages us from setting our personal standards too low. What are the potential pitfalls of expecting too little of ourselves? How do we know what "too little" is? Are we better off setting our standards too high or too low?

Rabbi Hirsch claims that even though Halakhah sets many standards for our behavior and actions, our lives will be sufficient if we follow some minimal requirements expected of all people. Are these rules -- set forth by God to Noah in the aftermath of the flood -- enough? Does Rabbi Hirsch's claim negate the need for Halakhah? Or does it remind us that our pursuit of Halakhic ideals enable us to live in an acceptable way, even if we don't reach those ideals?


Theme #2: Gesundheit!

Now, if you obey the Lord your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God: Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. (Deuteronomy 28:1-3)

The exhaustive list of curses in this portion is preceded by a briefer, but no less significant, list of blessings.

Some people observe their Judaism and perform its commandments within the walls of their own homes, but are ashamed of their religion when they go out among people, fearing that they might be called “fanatical,” “old-fashioned” and such. Therefore Scripture says: “Only if you will not be ashamed to observe the commandments even in the city, when you are among others, will you receive the blessings.” In the same vein we read in the opening paragraph of the Shulhan Arukh: “And he shall not be ashamed in the presence of those who deride him.” -- Divrei Shaarei Hayyim

Do not imagine that if you devote yourself wholly to the service of God, doing only the minimum for your own domestic needs, that you will endanger your own security from the designs of the surrounding nations. For they will be harbouring evil against you and you will be ignorant of it. The text therefore reassures us that “there shall come upon thee all these blessings when you hearken to the Lord.” Even while you are engaged the whole time in hearkening to the Lord doing His service, the blessings will protect you. -- Malbim

The promise of blessings is followed by the caution “if you heed”. We are bidden to heed God despite the blessings. -- Itture Torah


Questions for Discussion:

Divrei Shaarei Hayyim reminds us that, for some of our ancestors, observing Judaism publicly was somehow embarrassing or a barrier to social advancement (and not just because of real or perceived threats of anti-Semitism). Are there circumstances today when we might still feel this way? What aspects of Judaism might be considered "embarrassing" in some circles? Is embarrassment a reasonable excuse to hide our Jewish practice in today's diverse society?

Malbim echoes the passage from the Passover Haggadah which states that every generation contains people who wish to destroy us, and he advises us to continue on a righteous path regardless of these amorphous dangers. Why is it sometimes difficult for us to ignore our real or perceived critics? Why do we focus on what they think of us, even if we have no idea what they think? Do we ever need to adjust our understanding of Jewish law based on the possibility of external threats?

Itture Torah understands that it may have been easy for our ancestors to rest on their laurels once God blessed them. Often, once we've reached a level of personal success, we stop challenging ourselves and become a lesser version of ourselves. Why is it important for us to keep setting new goals to strive for? How do we do this while also taking moments to appreciate and enjoy our successes? Is this a difficult balance for most people?

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