Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:12-29:19)

A D’var Torah: by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings” (Deut. 28:6)

Ki Tavo, which means “when you come to,” referring to the Holy Land (and also, according to Talmudic lore, to when you enter the world without sin, in the hope that you may leave it the same way) [1] is often called the “Blessings and Curses” chapter.

Personally, I have experienced many blessings. For one thing, I have a loving family. Secondly, I live in sunny California, something that can only be appreciated fully by someone who has spent most of her life in a wintry climate. You have to admit, though, that this state is an uncommonly beautiful and diverse –both geographically and humanly — part of America. Thirdly, I have been able to visit Israel twice and look forward to the next time. Yes, I am saying it out loud.

“Blessings and curses were closely bound to a belief in the power of speech,” in a way that was almost magical, writes Rabbi Gunther Plaut in The Torah: A Modern Commentary [2]. In fact, when this parasha is read aloud in the synagogue, the reciters lower their voices to a whisper when it comes to the curses.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids groan when they have to learn this portion for their Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Since the list of curses are four times the length of the blessings, many wise rabbis simply give these young people the “blessings” part to absorb.

But sometimes curses can turn into blessings. When the last stock market crash occurred, cutting my hard-earned, mutual fund savings in half at a time in my life when I could not replace what was lost, I was distraught. Then I decided that the best investment was in myself: I enrolled in rabbinic school, and my rabbinic education and eventual ordination has turned out to be a wondrous, life-changing blessing, one that I can hopefully transmit to other people.

Both “the blessings and the curses,” Richard Elliott Friedman points out, “are there out of a realistic recognition of human psychology: rewards and punishments are effective tools of instruction from childhood and up. But the aim is higher: that humans should come to see that what is being put in their hands is ‘life’ and ‘good’ and love’ (Deut.30:15-16) [3]. There are indeed many blessings to come.

Towards the beginning of Ki Tavo is a summary of all the blessings that the Creator has already given to the Israelites, beginning with their liberation from Egypt. You may recognize this time-honored portion (don’t skip it!) from the Passover Haggadah:

“My father was a fugitive Aramaean [4]. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut: 26:5-9).

Isn’t it amazing how quickly we forget good things that were done for us in the past and get into the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” mode? So at least twice a year, when we read Ki Tavo in the approach to Rosh HaShanah, and again in the Spring in the month of Nisan, we remember to be grateful for past gifts.

The Haftarah (Isaiah 60:1-22) that accompanies this Torah portion, framed in the imagery of light and of worldly splendor, is itself a gift to the human spirit. It is the sixth of seven weekly haftarot of consolation recited weekly to precede Rosh HaShana after the devastation of Tisha B’Av. Distinguished commentator Michael Fishbane discusses the Haftarah’s proclamation of the new light that shines on Jerusalem because God’s presence is now there. The Haftarah also predicts the ingathering of the exiles to Zion, of a glory that transcends nature, and of the peace and victory that will ensue [4].

Given the devastation from natural causes during the past weeks in the world we live in today, this Haftarah is especially uplifting this Shabbat, with its poetic message of redemption. It is one of the most beautiful of all the Haftarahs:

“Arise [kumi], shine [ori] for your light has dawned;

The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!” (Isaiah 60:1)….

“And nations shall walk by your light” (Isaiah 60:3).

Could we ask for anything more? Shabbat shalom!

[1] Cited in Gunther Plaut, Ed.,“Gleanings, “ The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised edition (New York: Union for Reform Judaism),1366.

[2] Ibid., 1363

[3] Commentary on the Torah, with a new English trans. (New York: HarperCollins, 2003),648.

[4] “Fugitive” is alternatively translated as “wandering.” According to Plaut, the Aramean could refer to Abraham (not a fugitive) or Jacob (not an Aramean), but was possibly Laban, who tried to undo Jacob (representing the father in this passage), Ibid., 1363.

However, more plausibly in my view, the revered 16th century rabbi, Sforno, identifies Jacob as the wandering Aramean because for a time “he was a wanderer in Aram without a permanent home and therefore not prepared to establish a nation fit to inherit a land” (Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, eds. Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, trans., notes Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz (N.Y.: Mesorah Publications, 1993) 837.

[5] Michael Fishbane. The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Philadelphia: JPS, 2002), 304-305.