Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

Rabbi David Stav 

We rarely have any hard and fast rules about which Torah portions must be read at what time, yet an age-old Rabbinic tradition maintains that we must be sure to read the parsha of Ki Tavo, containing the blessings and curses before Rosh Hashanah, so that we can merit to enjoy the blessings – in accordance with the verse: “This year, with its curses, shall end, and a new year shall begin with its blessings.”

Curses and blessings lie at the heart of this week’s Torah reading, and we read them not once, but twice. First, the Torah describes what will happen when the Jews enter the Promised Land. The nation would be divided into two large groups, one of which would stand atop Mount Gerizim, a mountain near the city of Sh’chem (modern-day Nablus) – and the other would stand just opposite it, on Mount Eival.

Positioned between the two groups, the Levites would recite the verses of blessing while facing the group on Mount Gerizim. Then, they would turn toward the group on Mount Eival, and utter the curses, which would take effect if we were to choose the wrong path.

The second part of the parsha contains a long diatribe delivered by Moshe, called the “tochecha” (admonition). The blessings and curses appear once more in this speech. A similar format of blessings and curses appears in a harangue in the Book of Leviticus, and we tend to read this text before the holiday Shavuot – again, so that by the time the holiday starts, the menace posed by the curses will be behind us.

Many of our commentators wrote about the significant differences between the different types of diatribes appearing in the Book of Leviticus and the Book of Deuteronomy. What they have in common is that if we are to be blessed, we will enjoy more plentiful harvests in our fields, an economic boom, peace in the land, and so on.

However, if we study the differences between them, we will discover something fascinating. The verses of blessing in the Book of Leviticus reach their climax in the verse: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people” [Lev. 26:12]. God will have a great relationship with His people. We will feel His presence among us and His love for us, and he will permanently dwell amongst us. What could be better?

Returning to this week’s parasha, however, we find that the focus has shifted. “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of Hashem is called upon you, and they will fear you… And Hashem will set you at the head, and not at the tail, and you will be only at the top, and not be at the bottom” [Deut. 28:13].

The focus has gone from the intimate connection between the nation and its God to the relationship between Israel and the other nations. With this blessing, we will be on top, not on the bottom, and Israel’s standing among the nations will be so high and unshakeable that none would ever dare try harm us.

But is our purpose in life to be at the head of the world? Are we trying to replace the Americans or the Chinese as a world power? It seems clear that we have never had such aspirations. If so, why promise a reward of that sort?

At the Rosh Hashanah dinner, there is a custom to eat the head of a fish or a sheep and recite the traditional blessing of “may we be like the head, not like the tail.” But how could everyone in the family become heads? How many heads can one family have? Yes, we all know the joke that being the prime minister of Israel means ruling over a nation of aspiring prime ministers, but what is it that we are seeking with this blessing?

Rather, what we mean to say is that our actions should stem from our heads, not our tails. In other words, we champion taking action after forethought and planning, rather than being driven by emotion or following other people’s lead. Being a “head” means taking the initiative, thinking, and planning, and this is precisely why we ask to be “heads” on Rosh Hashanah. We don’t want the holiday to be merely another date in the calendar, but a day at the head of all others – the brains behind the rest of the year.

This is what we encounter in Moshe’s reprimand. Many may believe that those who act ethically and follow the straight path are just “suckers”, or “losers”, a laughingstock that no one will ever take seriously. The Torah, however, says the exact opposite: when the nations of the world see that our actions are guided by faith and a set of ethics deeply rooted in our consciousness, as we carry the banner of the King of Kings, they will be fearful of us.

The Book of Deuteronomy is a prelude to the Jewish people’s communal and political life in the Land of Israel, whereas the Book of Leviticus is the book of sanctity, which defines the nation’s spiritual aims, particularly those of the individuals making up that nation. It follows that Moshe’s speech in Leviticus would emphasize the feeling of proximity between the individual and Hashem. However, Deuteronomy reflects the time just before the entry into the land, an idea echoed in the name of the parasha, Ki Tavo (“When you shall come into the land…”).

Deuteronomy attempts to address the challenges of nation and state in the international arena. Precisely for this reason, Moshe must emphasize that our ethical consciousness with this global relationship – to the contrary, it could boost that relationship immensely. The leader of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah once noted in a speech that he launched the 2006 war because he viewed Israeli society as being weak and fragile.

Our enemies are tracking our every move, from near and far, trying to discern whether we have truly understood what lies at the root of our existence. They want to know what values we are committed to, and which vision we aspire to realize. If we truly want to be heads and not tails, we must always show the world that the name of Hashem is called upon us, and that we are truly adhering to all of the good and righteous deeds with which Hashem has commanded us.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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