Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
Rabbi David Stav
As the Torah enters its final stretch, we glance at the Jewish calendar and realize that the new year is fast approaching. “Siyurei Selichot”, the traditional pre-Rosh Hashana tours in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, are gaining momentum, and shopping carts are filling with groceries at supermarkets throughout the country. The atmosphere is festive, and for good reason.
Our Sages wanted Parshat Ki Tavo to be read toward the end of the year so that we would read the verses concerning God’s warning to the Jewish people, and the curses that would come to pass if we do not heed that warning – at the end of the year – so that we can start the year with a clear mind and conscience, as reflected in the text: “May the year and its curses end, and may the new year begin, along with its blessings.”
Almost every part of Moses’s address, as recorded in this week’s parsha, reverberates with festivity. At times, this may seem a bit odd, since these dramatic words do not necessarily reflect any specific occurence. Here is one example: “Moses and the Levitic priests spoke to all Israel, saying, “Pay attention and listen, O Israel! This day, you have become a people to the Lord, your God.” This day? What happened on this day? To which event was Moses referring?
Our sages found a more genteel way of asking the question, which can be translated as follows: “Was this the day the Torah was given to Israel? After all, was this day not the last day of the forty year period [of wondering in the desert]?”
The nation had received the Torah forty years earlier and has been meandering through the desert – but are we to believe that this was the day they truly became a nation? What transpired on that “day” that hadn’t occurred earlier? Is this a slip of the tongue, or just flowery language? Not at all.
If we take a closer look at the parsha, we realize that this is a recurring phenomenon. At the very beginning of the parsha, we find a description of the commandment of bikkurim, the first fruit we are commanded to bring to the Temple once a year. The person offering the fruit must make the following declaration: “And you shall come to the kohen who will be [serving] in those days, and say to him, ‘I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land…’”
Subsequent verses state: “This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances…”. How could this be the day that the people of Israel were commanded to keep the Torah, if Moses has already dedicated an entire book – the Book of Deuteronomy – to instructing us on how to keep God’s commandments? As if this weren’t enough, Moses continues with the following:
“You have selected God this day to be your God, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and to obey Him. And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments.”
Was this the day we accepted God as our God, or the day he accepted us as his “treasured nation”? Or was this process embodied in a sequence of events that began with God’s promise to our forefather, Abraham, and reached a climax at Mount Sinai and the Exodus from Egypt?
Presumably, nothing occurred the day Moses addressed the people. At the conclusion of the parsha, this phenomenon reappears: “Yet until this day, God has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.”
In other words, the time the Jewish people had spent in the desert was meaningless, and only today, God can see that you have eyes and hearts. What is going on here? In each of these verses, we fail to come up with a specific event that occurred on that day, yet the word “today” is constantly repeated. Why?
Many Midrashim attempt to reveal what was occurring behind the scenes. Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, the greatest Torah commentator; 11th-century France) recounts: “I heard that on the very day that Moses gave the Torah scroll to the sons of Levi, as the verse says, ‘And he gave it to the Kohanim, the sons of Levi’ – all Israel came before Moses and said to him: ‘Moses, our Teacher! We also stood at [Mount] Sinai and accepted the Torah, and it was [also] given to us! Why, then, are you giving the members of your tribe control over it, so that some day in the future they may claim, ‘It was not given to you, it was given only to us!’ Moses rejoiced over this matter and it was on account of this, that he said to them, ‘This day, you have become a people [to the Lord your God].’ [This meant:] ‘It is today that I understand that you cleave to the Omnipresent and desire Him.’”
Will the Torah be given solely to the tribes of Levi and the Kohanim, or to the entire nation of Israel? This is a fascinating account with far-reaching ramifications on the ties that bind the entire nation to the Torah. The only problem is that nothing in the text of the Torah alludes to any such event. It is difficult to believe that such a dramatic event could have occurred, if the Torah doesn’t even hint at it.
Our Talmudic Sages propose another solution: “[This was meant to] teach you that the Torah is desirable to those who study it every day, [as desirable as] it was on the day it was given at Mount Sinai.” Otherwise put: nothing dramatic happened on that day. Nothing would have made the headlines. What did happen, though, is that Moses was telling all of us that this could happen to any one of us, on any day.
Today, we are becoming a nation, if this is what we wish to do. Today, if we wish, we start avoiding foods we should not be eating. Today, we stop gossiping or slandering, if we truly believe that we shouldn’t be doing these things, and so on. The new idea Moses introduces in Parshat Ki Tavo is how a new day can bring change, regardless of what happened yesterday. Even now, as we approach the end of the year, we need not wait another ten days to start changing. The change begins now.