Thoughts on Parshat Ki Tavo

The opening chapter of Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26) uses the term “ה’ אלקיך”  Adon-ai Elo-hekha no fewer than eleven times in its 19 verses.

In most of these instances it is Moses addressing the individual Israelite. In one instance it is the phrasing the individual Israelite must use when presenting his bikurim (first fruits) offering to the priest (verse 3). In one instance (verse 7) it uses the term “ה אלקי אבותינו” (first person plural) and in one instance (verse 14). “ה אלקי (first person singular).

Only once does “Adon-ai” appear unaccompanied by any variant of “Elo-him” (verse 8).

The first question is why the need for the “Elo-him” altogether. Surely the Israelites understood very well who ”Adon-ai” is without the reinforcing noun “Elo-him”.

Furthermore what is the implication of “Elo-hekha” – your G-d – in the second person singular? Shouldn’t the phrasing be “Adon-ai Elo-heinu”, our collective Elo-him, or the simpler “Adon-ai Elo-him”?. After all wasn’t it Moses’ “Elo-him” also? Or, as in the case of verse 3,is it only the priest’s Elo-him, not the Elo-him of the one who is bringing the first fruits?

And why is the Elo-him dropped altogether  in verse 8?

ויוציאינו ‘ח ממצרים ביד חזקה Vayotzieinu Ado-nai m’Mitzrayim b’yad hazakah…”, and G-d took us out of Egypt with a strong hand), and likewise in verse 18 “ ה האמירך היום להיות לו לעם סגולה”, G-d separated you today to be for Him a chosen people)?

I would like to suggest that there is a distinction to be made here between the Ado-nai and the Elo-hekha insofar as the former is referring to G-d as the unquestioned, overarching ruler of the universe, while the Elohekha is the same G-d personalized and customized to the individual Israelite.

As is true for most of us (and I speak for myself) who are at least nominally believers; we accept in the abstract that there is Ado-nai out there, and that this is His universe. But that’s where our awareness stops, indeed our very consciousness of His presence. Which is why Moses, when addressing us as individuals adds the Elo-hekha as a pointed reminder that G-d’s macro-presence does not obviate His micro-presence. And this is something for which we need a constant individual reminder.

A hint regarding this is embedded in our bikurim utterance to the priest. After all, if anyone should need no reminder about who and what G-d is, it is the kohen. And yet each Israelite must tell “the priest who shall be there at that time”; “הגדתי היום לה’ אלקיך כי באתי אל הארץ “I have told today to the Lord your G-d (Ado-nai Elo-hekha) etc.

Sforno explains that the reason the Torah says “the priest who shall be there at that time” is because one cannot count on the priest who is on duty to be particularly “great in wisdom”. Indeed, as hereditary priests, our kohanim come in all spiritual shapes and sizes, none of which diminish from their ritual privileges. We see this all the time when men of questionable character are called up for the first aliyah, or ascend to the proscenium in order to give us the priestly blessing. Thus, clearly, priests often need a bit of a reminder that Ado-nai is not just in the sky, but that he is very much “Elo-hekha” the priest’s individual G-d as well.

While I have not scoured Scripture to verify this, I believe there is no single instance in the Torah when a convert is ever addressed with the term “Adon-ai Elo-hekha”, for a convert is likely the only Jew who needs no such reminder. Having made the difficult choice to become a Jew, the convert is ever-mindful of his personal Elo-him and needs no prodding. Perhaps this is why we are prohibited from ever reminding a convert that he is a ‘ger’.

Let us segue for a moment to the archetypal convert, Ruth, and her famous words to Naomi   ואלוקיך אלוקי” and your G-d is my G-d.

What exactly was going on here?

We can take it for granted that Naomi wasn’t exactly a paradigm of spiritual awareness. Apparently she had no problem abandoning Eretz Israel with her ambitious sons who sought their fortune among the Moabites. Nor do we sense any objection on her part to their marrying out of their faith. And, clearly, had her sons prospered in Moab and had they had progeny there, Naomi would have lived out her years among the gentiles and her gentile grandchildren with no second thoughts.

That she was returning to Israel was a purely practical decision. Bereft of her sons, penniless, starving, an alien in an alien land, she decides to go home and throw herself at the mercy of her kinfolk.

Hence it is hardly likely that she served as any spiritual role model for her daughter-in-law Ruth to emulate.

By contrast, Ruth had absolutely no reason to go to Eretz Israel. She was a princess; young, beautiful, well connected, childless. In other words she would have everything going for her had she elected to remain in Moab.

We can therefore infer that Ruth’s motivation for going to Eretz Israel had nothing to do with her dead husband, and little to do with her former mother-in-law Naomi. Like our Patriarch Abraham, Ruth was a sui generis believer in G-d. By declaring to Naomi “ואלוקיך אלוקי” it is she who is prodding Naomi to remember who her G-d is, not the other way around. Much as Moses is prodding each of us, and each of us must prod the often subpar priest. Because like the kohen, and like the ordinary Israelite, we come by our status via the accident of birth. By contrast, Ruth achieves her status as a Jew by dint of her own personal revelation and discovery of G-d.

We can now understand why there is no mention of Elo-hekha” in verse 8. The reference to G-d who took us out of Egypt is pure “Ado-nai” and the “Elo-hei avoteinu” (verse 7)is the overarching Divinity made manifest to the entire world as the G-d of the Israelites past, present and future. This is the G-d of the universe and the G-d of all the Israelites, the macro G-d performing manifest miracles. At a time like this we, hopefully need no individual reminders.

At Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival

In the latter part of the Parsha we have the Israelites shouting “Amen” to a series of curses in the event one violates any of an itemized list of prohibitions.

The fascinating thing is that virtually all of these prohibitions are common sense. One would think there is no need to single out such obvious no-nos as encroaching on another’s turf; mis-directing a blind person (which includes cheating in business); cohabiting with one father’s wife or with an animal; or perverting the verdict of an orphan, widow or stranger. After all these are things about which we should need no reminders.

If anything one would need reminders to drink halav Yisrael, or to consume only glatt kosher meat (and not just ANY glatt kosher meat), or to wear kaful shmoneh tzitzit with black stripes, or, Heaven forfend, to not hear a woman’s voice singing.

Yet, oddly enough, in very religious communities (of all faiths I may add) we know of altogether too many cases of pedophilia, extra-marital affairs, incest, and unethical business practices. And there is no dearth of beth dins that pervert justice. At the same time few among the devout need to be reminded not to drink ordinary milk, or consume ordinary kosher meat, or heaven forfend, attend a concert in which a woman’s voice might be heard.

Indeed our generation has reached such spiritual heights that we are now enjoying gender-segregated buses, gender-segregated tombstones of holy men and women, and even gender-segregated sidewalks in the very neighborhoods where these other, seemingly obvious violations, are occurring with distressing regularity.

Perhaps the time has come for us to be a little less frum and a little more ehrlich. How about we just keep kosher for a while and not get into such a snit about kol isha;that we work a lot harder at our business ethics and our respect for the inviolability of others. How about we become a bit less obsessive about black hats and long skirts, and a bit more focused on the integrity of beth dins. Somehow I don’t think it can hurt.

What do you think?