Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim 28) contains the blessing and curse that Israel will receive if they keep or break the covenant with God. In the following chapter (Devarim 29), Moshe resumes his speech and urges the people to keep the Torah. However, the Sages decided to break up the opening of this discourse, with some of chapter 29 in Parashat Ki Tavo and the rest in the next parasha, Nitzavim.
Why did they decide to divide up the verses in this way? Why not place all of them in the same parasha?
It appears to me that they understood that the verses at the end of Ki Tavo deliver a very different message than those that open Parashat Nitzavim. Let’s take a look.
At the end of Ki Tavo, Moshe says that the people should follow God because of all of the overt miracles they witnessed:
“You have seen all that God did in Egypt before your very eyes, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land. Your own eyes saw the great miracles, signs and wonders. […] I led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet […] When you reached this place, King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan came out to engage us in battle, but we defeated them. […] Therefore observe faithfully all the terms of this covenant, that you may succeed in all that you undertake.” (Devarim 29:1-8)
A direct linkage is made between keeping God’s laws and the success that the people experienced and will experience in the future. Just as they experienced miracles when they left Egypt and throughout their time in the wilderness, they can expect the same level of divine providence once they enter the land, if they remain faithful to God.
However, in Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe paints a different picture. Now, it’s important to state at the outset, that there are phrases in these verses that are challenging to translate, and have been the subject of much debate among the commentators. But I believe that the interpretation I will present here is both compelling and can help answer the question we are trying to resolve.
In these verses, Moshe once again enjoins the people to keep the covenant:
“You are thus being brought into the covenant of God your Lord […] He is establishing you as His nation, so that He will be a God to you, just as He promised you, and as He swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Devarim 29:11-12)
But then he mentions a scenario where some people might convince themselves that they don’t need to follow the laws, and they will escape punishment:
“Beware, in case there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations […] When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, even if I do as I see fit'” (Devarim 29:17-18)
The continuation of Devarim 29:18 is particularly different to understand. Influenced by the Septuagint and Ibn Ezra, the JPS translates it as “to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” In their commentary, they write that this means that the sinner’s actions will sweep away both the innocent and guilty (“moist and dry”).
This interpretation explains the transition two verses later:
“And later generations will ask, the children who succeed you, […] and see the plagues and diseases that the LORD has inflicted upon that land […] just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah […] all nations will ask, ‘Why did the LORD do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?’ They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that the LORD, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt'” (Devarim 29:21-24)
In these verses, we see that the entire nation, and all of the land, was punished by God. While it may have been certain individuals or groups who performed the most egregious sins, eventually the entire people – the moist and the dry – will suffer.
This kind of reality is very difficult to accept. The generation after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians said it most poignantly: “Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt.” (Eicha 5:7)
But as Moshe mentioned earlier in his Nitzavim speech, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Devarim 29:13-14)
The covenant obliges all the people, in all the generations. God may not punish the same generation that committed the sin – it could fall on their descendants. That can be viewed as a positive thing – the postponement of punishment is a sign of God’s patience. But it does create a disconnect between the people’s actions and the divine response. That disconnect is often referred to as “hester panim” – the hiding of God’s providence (literally His face). The righteous suffer, and it is not obvious why.
That experience stands in strong contrast with the model presented at the end of Ki Tavo. There Moshe says that those who follow the laws, will see the same miracles that his generation saw. Sometimes that may be true. At other times, however, God’s justice may appear hidden.
When there is no direct relationship between deed and consequence, the people might be tempted to abandon God altogether. In response to that, Moshe encourages them with the last verse in the chapter:
“Concealed acts concern the LORD our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.” (Devarim 29:28)
There may be things we don’t understand. We might live in a time of “hester panim” and concealed acts. We, however, should focus on the reality that is in front of us. We should keep the “overt acts” of Ki Tavo in our consciousness, and keep the law as if that is what we were experiencing. With that commitment, we can hope that once again we’ll “succeed in all that we undertake.”