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

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“Cursed be the individual who does not carry aloft the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:26)

Although I have been blessed with many magnificent students over my five decades of teaching, I shall never forget the piercing words penned by one of my most treasured students, who suddenly and inexplicably turned away from a Torah way of life. For a time he refused to answer any of my heartfelt entreaties for a dialogue – before eventually leaving a poem at my home. In part, it read:
Beloved teacher, both of us are often blind; you do not always see how much you taught me and I do not always see how much I learned from you. You think I took the Tablets of Testimony and threw them insolently at your feet. That’s not at all what happened. The commandments merely became too heavy in my hands, and they fell to the ground.
As a Torah educator, I still feel the searing pain of losing students such as this one, in whom I had seen so much potential. It led me to difficult questions of myself: Where had I gone wrong as an educator? To what extent was I responsible for his decision?
These questions bring to mind a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tavo, which announces blessings for those who observe specific Biblical commands, and curses for those who reject them. The final denunciation, however, “Cursed be the individual who does not hold aloft the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 27:26), is difficult to define. To what is this verse referring?
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 7:4) pointedly asks, in rhetorical fashion, “Is there then a Torah that falls down?” Indeed, the answer is, yes, there is, and Rabbi Shimon Ben Halafta specifies the responsible party for this tragedy: the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community!
While spiritual leaders can be measured to a certain extent by whether those in their care are completely observant of the Torah’s teachings, their true mettle is tested by how they respond when their students fall short. Moses demonstrates how a teacher should react in such a situation. Upon witnessing the Jews serving the Golden Calf, he realizes that he has not succeeded in holding aloft the Torah, given that a mere forty days after temporarily ascending Mount Sinai, his people had departed from its ways so quickly. Thus, he casts the Tablets of the Covenant to the ground, smashing them.
At that moment, God saw the profound responsibility that Moses took upon himself for the broken tablets, and, according to the Yerushalmi (ibid.) placed within Moses’ heart the words of King Josiah: “It is upon me to hold aloft [the words of the Torah]”. Hence the Almighty commands Moses to sculpt two tablets just like the earlier two which had been broken (Ex. 34:1).
Fascinatingly enough, this verse is the very source for the Oral Law, specifically unique to the Second Tablets (Midrash Shemot Rabba, ad loc.), and which consists of the input of the Sages in every generation to ensure that the Torah continues to be held aloft.
The Torah “falls” when the Jewish People do not uphold its laws and values. Once the Oral Law – the application of the Torah in every generation – was placed in the hands of the rabbis and teachers, it becomes these leaders’ obligation to make certain that it is a Torah of love and a nourishing source of life.
Indeed, it is the responsibility of the spiritual leaders of every generation to see to it that the Torah becomes, in the eyes of the Jewish People, neither so light – of such little significance that it can be easily discarded – nor so heavy and onerous that it can hardly be borne. Those who teach God’s Torah must help every Jew feel and understand the loving embrace of Torah, the profound wisdom of Torah, the timeliness and timelessness of Torah.
Shabbat Shalom
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