Between Ki Tavo and Nitzavim

There is a holographic element in Jewish history, a self-similarity between people and Torah. It would not be too much of a stretch to view the Torah as the blueprint for the longest-running social experiment in human history.

Nowhere is this so evident as in our current age, where we can look back and see historic patterns that were invisible to those living through them.

For example: Parashat Ki Tavo, which we read last week, and Parashat Nitzavim, this week’s parashah. Neither of these two parshiot stands alone; each must be understood through the other. They are two halves of a story. Our generation would appear to be living on the cusp, the transition point between Ki Tavo and Nitzavim.

History and Harvest

These two parshiot–Ki Tavo and Nitzavim–are about history, about what we will go through and where it will bring us. Parashat Ki Tavo begins with a brief encapsulation of Jewish history up to the settling of Eretz Yisrael, which is to be called to mind and retold upon bringing the First Fruits to the Temple.

We are told to recount our history–the bad times and the good times– and in doing so, we remember that our past has borne the fruit of the present. It is a lesson in drawing lessons from history.

The parshiot prior to this have set the scene for what follows. We are called upon to do certain things, abstain from doing others. We are called upon to “circumcise our hearts” in following all these instructions. Circumcision is “Brit Mila”, the sign of entering into the Covenant. Does circumcising the heart mean bringing the heart into the covenant? Entering into it with all our hearts?

And yet, the later part of Parashat Ki Tavo makes very clear, in explicit detail, what will happen when we don’t–or can’t–do all of this. It is no surprise that many modern parshanim see these verses as a prophetic glimpse of the Shoah.

There is a hint of the inevitability of all this right there in plain sight:  “When all this has come upon you, the blessing and the curse…”  So it was known from the outset that we would be subject to the curse as well–that we would not be able to “circumcise our hearts”.

Why then were we presented with a test that we could not pass? Why were the past two thousand years necessary?

Perhaps because the real lesson was the curse, not the blessing? Perhaps because the real test was somewhere in all these generations of exile and transformation? Perhaps we cannot know the answer. Perhaps the question is too big for any one answer.

But we do know that we were offered the return. It is not a one-way street. We read, “u’mal Hashem Elo-khecha et levavcha”. Hashem will circumcise your hearts so that you may love Him. What we could not accomplish on our own, will somehow be accomplished for us. We could not mold ourselves into the people we were supposed to be, just by an act of will. Instead, we were molded by our history.

From darkness into light

Parashat Nitzavim offers the intriguing insight that the history and struggles of any one of us bears some relation to what we have endured as a people. We are like holograms–the whole is present in each part. All of our history is present in the soul of each of us. Any single Jewish soul contains not only our history, but the Torah which we have made a part of us.

Why do we say “Hu ya’aseh shalom…” at the end of the Kaddish?  Because we can’t reach it on our own. All the praise and joy of reality expressed by the words of the Kaddish are not always within reach. We struggle against the darkness, but our own efforts do not suffice.

Parashat Nitzavim tells us that only after we have been shown that our own efforts will not be enough, will we find that they don’t have to be enough. We are not alone. We are not abandoned. What we could not do by our own efforts will be given us: “to love Hashem Elo-khecha with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live.” (לאהבה את-ה’ אלו-היך, בכל-לבבך ובכל-נפשך–למען חייך.).

From our vantage point in time, we can see these two parshiot–Ki Tavo and Nitzavim as two sides of a coin. We can rejoice in the fact that we have in fact been changed by what we have gone through. There are mistakes we will never make again. There are others that we at least know the consequences of, so that we will stop before going over the brink. Seen in totality, there is a wholeness to all of this.

The historical message is: we had to go through that in order to reach this point. No suffering is as hard to bear as unnecessary suffering. But this was necessary.

And as with the nation, so with the individual: What we have each gone through was necessary, in order for us to reach a place that we could not have reached on our own.  If we have not quite reached that point, at least we need no longer despair of reaching it.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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