No catchy intro, no fancy hook this week. We are almost at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are deep in the month of Elul, the time when we prepare our minds, bodies and souls for the upcoming days of prayer, teshuvah (repentance) and renewal. Now is the moment to ask hard questions, big questions, intense questions and, at times, uncomfortable questions. And we do this work in the shelter of God’s wings, dwelling in God’s holy home; as Psalm 27 reminds us, “Let me dwell in the house of God all the days of my life.” And so, as we read parashat Ki Tavo this week, with its magnanimous breadth of learning, I think that we can see the entirety of the parasha boiling down into a fairly simple, yet profound theme: love conquers fear.
The scope of the parasha is basically like this: offering of first fruits and the famous line about “my father was a wandering Aramean,” which has been included in the Pesach haggadah; the litany of blessings and curses, known as the Tochecha, or rebuke, which on the literal level of Torah is theologically understood as reward and punishment, but actually can be read as an acknowledgement of the concept of consequence for our actions here in this world; and finally, a prophetic ending, where Moses tells the people that although they have seen some great signs and wonders of God, “To this day God has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”
I wrestled with how to approach this parasha: Should I talk about the first fruits and the blessing we say as an introduction, which acknowledges our history and connects us to our people throughout the ages? Should I talk about the fact that reading the Torah literally is dangerous, especially when it involves this concept of doing mitzvot (commandments) and getting rewards while not doing them seems to bring such horrible punishment? (The litany of curses is enough to make anyone cower in fear and some are so gross as to turn the stomach.) Or maybe I should focus on how a lack of sensible and universal health care in and of itself is bad enough, but the spurious vitriol and lies being spewed by those opposed to it is enough to see this as a curse we are wont to have wrought on ourselves? This debate is certainly lacking love for one another. Any one of these themes would make for a worthy devar Torah. And then, with God’s help, I found this teaching that brings it all together into one.
The Slonimer Rebbe, known as the Netivot Shalom, remarks on the final part of the parasha, where Moses tells the people, “You have seen all that YHVH did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt…. Yet to this day, YHVH has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:1, 3). In his comment, he asks, “What was it about ‘this very day’ that Moses finally felt that the people were gaining an understanding of the magnitude of God? Had they not been together leaving Egypt or at Mt. Sinai? Why today can they finally discern the wonder and grandeur of this experience?”
The Slonimer is digging deeper on a set of verses that Midrash begs us to answer, for the Torah doesn’t tell us. He teaches that on this day “Moses saw the greatness of deep connection and the greatness of love that the people felt toward God, and in that moment they gained a fuller desire for Torah.” For, the Slonimer says, “No person is able to reach the spiritual level of knowing from the heart, of knowing God, of having eyes to see the greatness of the Creator, or ears to hear, except by way of love and affection” (Netivot Shalom, Devarim 182-3). This is a remarkably beautiful statement of faith and a gorgeous reminder that the highest level of Torah is that of love. Our teacher goes on to say, in a later paragraph, that the essence of being Jewish is this deep love and affection for God. I would add that this love should, hopefully, in turn lead to love of others. If it doesn’t, then it is a false love and can be considered idolatrous. The Slonimer says it so passionately: “Doing a mitzvah [living life] without kavanah [deep intention] and without deep affectionate love is like a body without a soul.”
As we arrive on the doorsteps of the High Holy Days, may we all find ways to bring more blessings, more love, more affection, more peace, more hope into the world. May the darkness of the curses that we read this week be overcome by the tremendous light of God’s hopeful rays, leading us to bring a new dawn, a new blanket of love upon our communities, our nation, Israel and our entire world. The hate that brews in the curses this week should be a stark reminder of the power we wield; that is the reason we read them. And even as they are read in a low and speedy voice, may the love we create be like molasses, smothering the fear and bringing us to an ohr chadash, a new light. Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah. l