Gidon Rothstein

Five Rashis, Ki Tavo: Building Our Service of Hashem From Inside Out

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the ceremony for bringing bikkurim, first fruits, from the seven types of produce for which Israel is well-known. That is where the Torah gives the recap of the Exodus story that we expound on Seder night, starting with the words (26;5) ארמי אבד אבי.

At the Seder, I always note that the literal meaning of those words is more likely “my father was a wandering Aramean,” since otherwise, the second half of the verse switches to talking about someone else, without noting the change of subject. Rashi on the Torah, however, reads it as we do Seder night, as referring to Lavan, who tried to destroy the entire Jewish people (by keeping Ya’akov in Aram, where he would have eventually blended into society and lost his identity).

What’s new is that Rashi here notes that this reading blames Lavan for what he intended to do, which Hashem counted as if he did it (since the verse says Arami oved, which in this reading is an Aramean was destroying, not tried to destroy). For non-Jewish nations, Rashi says, Hashem counts their plans as if they had been brought to reality.

Rashi has just slipped in an interesting philosophical claim. We’re used to assuming that meaning to do bad doesn’t count the same as having done it (although we also think Hashem credits us for our good thoughts as if we’d accomplished them). But is that obvious or necessary? Perhaps that’s a kindness of Hashem’s towards us; perhaps, in fact, the commitment to do evil is just as bad — or close to as bad — as having done it. That would be especially true if the bad intent didn’t come to fruition only for reasons outside the control of the person with that intent.

It’s a reminder that some of what we take for granted isn’t logically necessary. In the case of shielding those with evil intent from the consequences of their thoughts, that might be a bending of the rules of strict justice that Hashem does not extend to non-Jews, in Rashi’s view.

The Newness of Torah

26;16 begins a new section, where Moshe tells the Jews that Hashem is commanding themהיום הזה, this day, to keep the various laws. In the next chapter, verse nine, Moshe again refers to “this day,” again in the context of reminding the Jews of their covenant with Hashem, of their being a nation with a special relationship with Hashem.

In each case, Rashi reads the phrase as adjuring us to maintain the newness of our experience of Torah — in the former case, of the mitzvot, in the latter of the covenant between the Jews and Hashem. It reminded me of a comment I heard on one of R. Shlomo Carlebach’s tapes, that you can keep Shabbat for the first time only once.

For those of us born to an observant family, that’s lost in the mists of infancy. But even for those who come to observance later in life, that first time gets lost, the excitement, the trepidation, the sense of uniqueness of that moment, it all can become routinized. Here and elsewhere in his commentary, Rashi understands the Torah to be fighting against that, to be urging us to approach each day of service of God with all the emotional attention and connection of our first.

Mounts Gerizim and Eval

27;12 describes the ceremony on Gerizim and Eval that the Torah had mentioned earlier. Six of the tribes would stand on one mountain, six on the other (in 1992, R. Michael Broyde and Steven Wiener published an article in Tradition, claiming that this configuration of tribes came as close as possible to having half the population of the nation on each mountain). Rashi points to Sotah 32a, which says that the Levites in between the two mountains would turn to Gerizim, say a bracha — blessed is he who does not make a statue or metal image, for example — and the entire people would answer Amen. Then they’d turn to Eval, say the curse form of that bracha — cursed is the one who makes a statue — and, again, the entire people would answer Amen.

If everyone answers to both, why divide the people? Rashi doesn’t say, but it has long seemed to me that the Torah is setting up something we have lost today, a clear distinction between right and wrong, lines that should be absolutely clear to all. Putting half the nation on each mountain wasn’t about those being the people of blessing or of curse, it was about making vivid, to all involved, that good and evil are separate, a whole valley in between them.

Bemoaning the Now

Much of the parasha is taken up with the tochacha, the warnings of what will happen to the Jewish people if we don’t serve Hashem as we were told. 28;67 speaks of part of our reaction to those troubles, that in the morning we will say who will give evening, and in the evening we will say who would give morning.

Rashi to the words בבקר תאמר, in the morning you will say, says that this means we’ll wish for the previous evening. On ובערב תאמר, in the evening you will say, he says we’ll be looking back to the morning. Because the troubles will continually get worse, each new time period bringing greater curses than what came before.

If all the Torah wanted to convey was that the troubles would get worse and worse, though, there’s a more direct way to say it. I think Rashi’s reading implies that we will have a share in what makes the troubles so bad. Rather than experiencing each difficulty as it comes, doing our best to cope with it for what it is, we will also burden ourselves with bemoaning how much better we used to have it. We won’t develop the perspective of seeing how much worse it can get, seeing what parts of it we can work with; we’ll be too busy being wistful for that morning, which wasn’t good, but was better than what is now.

Getting caught up in that will make it harder to bear what actually is at that moment.

Recognizing Kindnesses and Fighting for Ownership of Torah

The tochacha provides a backdrop for, 29;3, where Moshe says that only that day had Hashem given the Jews the heart to know and hear. Rashi says that the people need that heart in order to be able to recognize all Hashem’s kindnesses, which leads to cleaving to Hashem.

In light of the Rashi we just reviewed, it’s a comment that takes the other side of the issue as well — not only will we get too focused on remembering how much better it was in the past, we don’t always recognize kindnesses that are with us right then, the kinds of kindnesses that would lead us to become closer to Hashem.

What led to that change, Rashi on עד היום הזה tells us, was that the Jews objected to Levi’im being made the  custodians of Torah. They, too, stood at Sinai, so why is Moshe singling out his tribe for special status? Moshe celebrated their desire to be close to Hashem.

Rashi doesn’t make a point of it, but this obviously did nothing to change the Levi’im’s status. The Jews’ claim wasn’t substantively effective, but it showed a desire for ownership of Torah worth celebrating. A desire to celebrate and emulate

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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