The brunt of Parashat Ki Tavo consists of the tochecha — admonition — a long and graphic description of what will, Heaven forbid, befall Am Yisrael if we forsake Hashem and His Torah. The tochecha is preceded by a much shorter set of blessings that Am Yisrael will merit if we do not forsake Hashem and His Torah.

This week we’re going to take a close look at the blessings, particularly the opening verses [Devarim 28:1-2]: “It will be if you obey Hashem, to observe to fulfil all His commandments which I command you today, Hashem will place you supreme above all the nations of the earth. All of these blessings will come upon you and catch up to you, [only] if you obey Hashem.” The Torah then follows with a comprehensive list of blessings: You will be blessed in the city and the field. You will defeat your enemies. Your favourite team will win the Super Bowl[1]… What is the purpose of the opening verses? How should being “supreme” be understood relative to the blessings that follow? Is this an additional blessing or perhaps something entirely different? Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch suggests that being “supreme” means being above[2] the forces of nature. As opposed to the Nations of the World that have to battle sickness and inclement weather, Am Yisrael, provided that we keep the Torah, will not be subject to the same set of physical rules. The same bacteria that cause illness in others will bounce off our immune systems. The same weather systems that cause drought in Switzerland will bring rainfall to the Land of Israel. The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers a more Kabbalistic bent: In order to achieve a goal, a person must have [1] the desire to achieve his goal, [2] the tools with which to achieve his goal, and [3] the goal must be achievable. Imagine a person who has goal of visiting every single country in Asia. In order to achieve this goal he will have to visit Afghanistan, an Asian country where he will regularly be awakened in the morning by gunfire. If he values personal safety, then perhaps he should consider visiting North American countries instead. Next, in order to visit Afghanistan he needs the proper visas. Finally, in order to physically enter Afghanistan, the border crossings must be manned and open. Only if all of these stars align will he be able to achieve his goal. “Being supreme” addresses the third requirement. “Being supreme” means that Hashem makes our goals achievable. It means that Hashem opens the door and gives us the opportunity – the possibility – of being recipients of the subsequent blessings[3]. This explanation can also help understand what the Torah means when it promises that the blessings will “catch up to you”.

I’d like to suggest an alternate approach by looking at the first appearance of the word “supreme” (elyon) in the Torah. Avraham Avinu has just achieved a military upset, routing four of the most powerful kings in the Middle East. He frees his nephew Lot, who has been captured in battle, and he begins the long journey home. He is met by Malki-Tzedek the King of Shalem[4], a person described as [Bereishit 14:18] “a priest to the Supreme G-d (kel elyon)”. Malki-Tzedek blesses Avraham [Bereishit 14:19-20]: “Blessed be [Avraham] to the Supreme G-d, Who possesses heaven and earth. And blessed be the Supreme G-d, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand”. While it was Malki-Tzedek, a non-Jew, who authored the term “Supreme G-d”, the term is used regularly in the siddur. One of the more popular songs sung on Shabbat is “Baruch Kel Elyon” – “Blessed is the Supreme G-d”. Hashem has many different names: the Tetragrammaton (Hashem), E-lokim, Kel, and others. Each name refers to a different Divine Attribute. For instance, the name “E-lokim” refers to the Divine Attribute of justice. Which attribute is symbolized by the name “Supreme G-d”? The answer is found in the words of Malki-Tzedek: “Supreme G-d, Who possesses heaven and earth”. Hashem possesses the heaven and the earth because He created them. In the words of Rav J.B. Soloveichik[5], “The fact that G-d created the world gives Him rights of ownership. One of the basic propositions [in our civil code] is that a creation always belongs to its creator”. In other words, “Supreme G-d” is the Divine Attribute of pure unlimited power.

While it is admittedly fun to boast to a pagan that “My G-d is stronger than your god”, having an all-powerful G-d can sometimes serve as a source of great despair. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a “trilogy in five parts” written by the late Douglas Adams, discusses an instrument of torture known as the Total Perspective Vortex : “The Total Perspective Vortex (TPV) is now used as a torture and (in effect) killing device on the planet Frogstar B. The prospective victim of the TPV is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe – together with a microscopic dot bearing the legend ‘you are here’. The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim’s mind; it was stated that the TPV is the only known means of crushing a man’s soul.” The greater Hashem is, the more insignificant we are. It seems that the more we laud Hashem’s greatness the deeper the hole we dig for ourselves.

Avraham Avinu addressed this concern. He heard the words of Malki-Tzedek and added one key word [Bereishit 14:22] “I raise my hand to Hashem, the Supreme G-d, Who possesses heaven and earth.” Avraham preceded the “Supreme G-d” with the Tetragrammaton. The Divine Attribute of the Tetragrammaton is the Divine Attribute of mercy. As Hurricane Harvey showed us, and as Hurricane Irma seems poised to show us yet again, the forces of nature show no mercy. They blindly destroy everything in their path. This is why our Sages compare nature to the Divine Attribute of justice. Mercy, on the other hand, requires Hashem’s active interaction with man. Mercy requires the infinite to make room for the finite. This was where Avraham outshined Malki-Tzedek. While both recognized Hashem’s utter and infinite power, only Avraham made room for the possibility of a personal relationship.

Let’s try to fold this understanding of “Supreme” back into the introduction to the blessings preceding the tochecha. When Hashem promises to reward Am Yisrael by placing us “supreme above all the nations”, it means that He will relate to us. He will be there for us. He will listen to our prayers. Hashem’s greatness as revealed through His blessings – military victories, economic prosperity, and internal peace – will instil us not with fear and despair but with courage and comfort.

Much of the western world does not share in these blessings. While most of the West basks in prosperity of nearly every kind, alienation, disaffection and depression are still rampant. The suicide rate in the US has not changed appreciably over the last fifty years even though the standard of living has continually improved. Things get better and yet people remain hopeless. Compare this with Israel: over the past thirty-five years in which I’ve lived here, we’ve gone from a border-line third world country to an economic powerhouse, superhighways now reach nearly every town in the country, and our neighbours to our immediate east and west have either made peace with us or have imploded. And yet the suicide rate in Israel is about a third of that in the US, and Israel is the fifth happiest country in the world, according to the Better Life Index report by the OECD. We have been doubly blessed: blessed with the ability to recognize that we have been blessed. While the blessings of the West are crushing, the blessings of Israel are empowering. Happy is the generation that sees the promises of the Torah coming to fruition before our very eyes.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

Condolences to my brother-in-law Leon Zemel on the passing of his father, Rabbi Nathan Zemel, a talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein. May you know no more sorrow.

[1] The NFL season begins this week. I cannot say that I am not excited.

[2] The Hebrew word translated as supreme (elyon) also means “above”.

[3] This explanation goes a long way in explaining why bad things happen to good people. Keeping the Torah does not automatically result in a person winning the lottery. It opens the door for him to be able to win the lottery, assuming that he buys a lottery ticket and has a certain amount of luck.

[4] The Midrash identifies Malki-Tzedek with Shem, the son of Noach, and Shalem with Jerusalem. The Rambam posits that Shem was a monotheist, albeit not a Jew.

[5] Noraos HaRav Volume 9, Chapter 2.7.