When trying to interpret a particularly thorny verse in the Torah, sometimes it’s a good idea to zoom out and to look at the verse in its context. Other times, zooming out only serves to make life more difficult. Parashat Ki Tavo contains an example of the latter. The thorny verse in question contains some singularly strange Hebrew words [Devarim 26:17-18]: “You have ‘he’emarta’ this day that G-d is your god, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And G-d has ‘he’emir’cha’ this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments.” The words “he’emarta” and ‘he’emir’cha” appear nowhere else in the Torah. These are both conjugations of the verb A.M.R – “to say” – but they appear in an impossible conjugation, the causative, as if to mean something along the lines of “have caused to say”. Trying to shoehorn this translation into the verse, it is unclear who has caused whom to say what and for what reason. What, then, is the Torah commanding us?
Let’s try to implement the “When in doubt, zoom out” rule. The verses in question are preceded by the following verse [Devarim 26:16]: “G-d commands you on this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.” On this day? Which particular day is the Torah talking about? Right now, for me, “today” is Saturday night. For others, “today” is Shabbat, when we read the Torah in shul. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains, “This suggests that each day G-d’s commandments should be to you as something new (not antiquated and something of which you have become tired), as though you had received the commands that very day for the first time”. Today means every single day. Fair enough, but what does this have to do with “causing someone to say something”?
It’s time to implement another rule: “When in doubt, see what Rashi has to say.” Rashi’s explanation on “he’emarta” is rather long, but we bring it in its entirety: “[These] are words whose meaning has no conclusive proof in Scripture. It seems to me, however, that they are expressions denoting ‘separation’ and ‘selection’: ‘You have singled Him out from all pagan deities to be unto you as a god and He, on His part, has singled you out from the nations on earth to be for Him a select people’. [Notwithstanding,] I did find a similar expression that denotes ‘glory’, as in the verse [Psalms 94:4]: ‘All wrongdoers glory in themselves’” Rashi brings a pair of explanations. According to the first one, both G-d and the Jewish People set the other aside, choosing from a larger set. According to the second explanation, both G-d and the Jewish People glorify each other. Rashi’s second explanation is espoused by other medieval commentators, for instance, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, a contemporary of Rashi. The Ibn Ezra writes “The Hebrew word he’emir carries connotations of exaltation… The Spaniard Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi cleverly explained how the word is related to the verb ‘to say’: the sense of the passage is that you have done all that is proper, to the point that you cause other people to say ‘He will be your G-d’; and He will likewise act toward you so as to cause you to say that you will be His treasured people.”
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, asks why Rashi rejects the simple interpretation cited by the Ibn Ezra and opts, instead, for an interpretation that “has no conclusive proof in scripture”? The Rebbe answers by referring us back to words “on this day” in verse 16, and asserting that verses 17 and 18 must also be referring to events that are happening “today”. According to the Ibn Ezra, G-d happily affirms every single day how proud He is to be our king. Is this really true? Over the years, the behaviour of the Jewish People has had its high points and its low points. There are times when we have not been overly pedantic in obeying G-d’s rules. There have been times when I have flown with my family that I have angrily pointed at my children and asked the stewardess if she knows who their parents are. Rashi cannot accept that G-d consistently extolls the Jewish People and so he chooses a more esoteric but believable explanation in which G-d points to the Jewish People and says “Yes, they are mine”, sometimes with a proud smile but sometimes with tears in His eyes. Because this explanation is so avant-garde, Rashi still brings the explanation of the Ibn Ezra as a sort of “back-up”. When I first read the Rebbe’s words, I asked myself another question: If the explanation of the Ibn Ezra has such a glaring hole in it, why does Rashi bother bringing it at all?
We can gain some traction by looking back at an episode that occurred nearly forty years earlier. The Jewish People had just been caught worshipping a golden calf and G-d had told Moses that as punishment he was going to destroy them [Shemot 32:9-10]: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them”. The Jewish People are stubborn. They are cantankerous. They will never learn. Why waste any more time with them? Moses begs G-d to rescind His decree. He offers an array of reasons why destroying the Jewish People would be the wrong thing to do. Moses concludes his prayer with the following words [Shemot 34:9]: “If I have gained Your favor, O G-d, pray, please go in our midst, even though this is a stiff-necked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!” Why would Moses ask G-d to forgive a “stiff-necked people” when that is precisely the reason why G-d wants to kill them?
Psychologists have for years been engaged in the “Nature versus Nurture” dispute. The subject under debate is the source of a person’s personality traits: Are they defined by his genes (nature) or by his upbringing (nurture)? Studies appear to show that both factors are involved. Nancy Segal, an Evolutionary Psychologist and Behavioral Geneticist at University of California at Fullerton, recently said, “A strict dichotomy between genes and environment is no longer relevant; they work in concert”. This is quite problematic from a Jewish point of view: It means that certain people, as a result of their DNA, are born with predetermined characteristic traits that make them more susceptible to sin. That just doesn’t seem fair. An early book of Jewish Psychology, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] addresses this. The Talmud teaches, “One who was born under the influence of Mars will be one who spills blood. Rav Ashi said: He will be either a blood letter [who heals], or a thief [capable of murder], or a slaughterer of animals, or a circumciser.” The Talmud is saying that while all humans are born with certain inborn tendencies, it is not heavenly decreed that these tendencies be used for evil. Judaism does not believe in determinism. Our predetermined traits need not adversely influence our actions. If we are clever, we can leverage these traits to our benefit. This can help us understand the Talmud in Tractate Yoma [86b] that asserts that repentance can actually turn our sins into zechuyot – good deeds. Repentance can make us become aware that the same innate traits that made us sin can also spur us to perform actions that bring us closer to G-d. A trait is simply a tool, nothing more and nothing less.
Back to the golden calf. The Jewish People are indeed cantankerous. We are quarrelsome and stiff-necked. These traits were what led us to fashion and to worship a golden calf. But these same traits would enable us to survive two thousand years of exile. They would enable us to withstand Hadrian, the Crusades, Khmelnytsky, Hitler, and Stalin. They would enable us to take a barren desert surrounded by Nasser, Assad, and Arafat and to turn it into a lush, blooming technological and economic powerhouse. Moses does not ask G-d to forgive the Jewish People even though they are a stiff-necked people, he asks G-d to forgive them precisely because they are a stiff-necked people. G-d has chosen the Jewish People and has separated them from all of the other nations on earth. Each and every day He looks at His people and He celebrates. While some days are admittedly better than others, only these people are stubborn enough to remain His Chosen People, every single day.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.
 I personally prefer the explanation of Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in the “Torah Temima”, where he interprets “he’emir” using the word “ma’amar,,” a method of betrothal in a Levirate marriage.
 The Hebrew word “ki” has four meanings, including “even though” and “because.”