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You’re being punished for your own good

A medieval poet reveals how divine rebuke is a gift for those who deserve it (Ki Tavo)
A Torah scroll, opened to Parshat Ki Tavo, October 18, 2009. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
A Torah scroll, opened to Parshat Ki Tavo, October 18, 2009. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

This week’s Torah portion is a challenge. It is not for the faint of heart. Just mention Parashat Ki Tavo and people think: Oh, the Tokhehah. And being told you’re doing things wrong is nobody’s favorite thing — not even when God is the one letting you know. Still, while that may be a reason to avoid the Latter Prophets of the Bible, with their rebuke and rejoinders to the Children of Israel, Ki Tavo should be safe — nobody has done anything wrong yet, so what’s to worry?

But doing the wrong thing is apparently part of our nature. Indeed, by presenting the punishment for wrong-doing before the wrong-doing has even taken place, Parashat Ki Tavo goes beyond a threat to keep us in line. Rather, it seems acknowledge the done deal: we will do wrong and we will be punished.

This “given” demands interpretation, for the moment we confront the claim that something is part of the human condition, we are left to take it up with the Creator. We can argue that the flaw is in the design, and we should not be blamed for our shortcomings. But if we also take it as a given that God’s prototype is not faulty, we must reflect anew on the human propensity to do wrong and suffer rebuke and punishment.

To do so, a medieval Hebrew poem that was part of the medieval Hebrew liturgy for this week in history will be of service – the discussion of it is not for the faint of heart either, but for those who dare, the Middle Ages may well shed light on our modern experience.

The creative exegetical poetry of medieval poets (paytanim) was incorporated into the Shabbat service, often during Kedushah, during the repetition of the Amidah – particularly in the Land of Israel, in the early Middle Ages. These poems (piyyutim), known as “kedushta’ot,” provided the congregation with insights and commentary on the week’s parashah and showcased the poet’s skill. It should be noted that the Torah portions were primarily divided according to the triennial cycle of reading the Torah that was in practice in the Land of Israel at the time — the extra time on Shabbat morning was dedicated to a longer sermon, or, indeed, the artistry of these poetic interpolations in the prayer. Nowadays, the Kedushah formulation is sacrosanct as it is, with the few variants for different services reminiscent of the time when each week’s kedushah was different. The paytan essentially played the role of a synagogue performance artist — and the congregation paid sharp attention to his words (they had no text to follow along), his interpretation, and his verbal technique.

Professor Shulamit Elitzur, a Hebrew University scholar whose field is medieval piyut, has made it easier for those of us who lack her expertise to find medieval Hebrew poetry that explicates the weekly parshah. In her 1999 book, A Poem for Every Parasha: Torah Readings Reflected in the Piyyutim (Shirah shel Parashah), Elitzur sheds new light on the weekly Torah portion by presenting one of these early interpretative poems, often a kedushta, in conjunction with each parashah.

She improbably entitles her selection for this week’s parshah: “Ahavhah she-be-Tokhehah” — the love that is in the rebuke.

* * *

First, an aside on how prominent a position the Tokhehah plays in this week’s Torah reading, and in our tradition overall. Recall the widespread practice of reading the Tokhehah with no pause for the reader – a practice that goes back to the time of the Mishnah (Megillah 3:6), codified in 200 CE. Making sure that the Tokhehah is read before the new year is another venerable custom, upheld also by those who completed reading the Torah on a triennial cycle, as was the practice in the Land of Israel, around the time of the Mishnah. Later, other customs developed as well: reading the Tokhehah sotto voce, because it’s so scary, just in case reading it loud would induce it to transpire, God forbid (a la Voldemort — shh!). Yet some have the practice of reading the Tokhehah out loud so that the congregation hears it well and takes heed. Either way, all customs address the Torah reading consciously — this is a Torah reading to be reckoned with.

Note also the context of the Tokhehah: the backdrop of blessings vs. curses, and the lack of parity in their presentation. We might want or expect or hope for equal time to the different consequences to our positive actions. Too bad for us…

* * *

Which brings us to a kedushta by Yannai (written on the third of Ki Tavo that begins with “Ve-hayah im shamoa tishma…” in Deuteronomy 28:1). He pays attention to the discrepancy between the blessings and the curses, and his kedushta indeed yields new insight on the parashah as a whole.

  1. אז פרשת ברכות מעטת / ופרשת קללת רבית
  2. בעבור ללמד צדק לדורות / ולמאן תורא במוסר תורות
  3. גלית תוכחותיך לעם לך סגולה / כי טובה תוכחה מגולה
  4. דעת אם חכם הוא עם אשר אהבך / כי אמור הוכח לחכם ויאהבך
  5. המלמד מוסר לא יקוט בו / ושומע וכוח לא יקוץ בו
  6. ולמוכיחים אמנם ינעם / אם למוכחים  משמע ינעם

 

  1. You abbreviated Your discussion of the blessings / and increased the number of curses!
  2. In order to teach righteousness (uprightness) to the future generations / so that they will fear the ethics of Your Torahs.
  3. You revealed Tokhehah to Your Chosen People / because it’s good to have Tokhehah revealed.
  4. Know whether he’s a wise one whom you love / Because when one rebukes one who is wise, [the one who is wise] loves [the rebuke].
  5. The one who teaches Ethics won’t despise it; the one who hears rebuke won’t chafe at it.
  6. And for those who give rebuke, it will nonetheless be pleasant / if those who are rebuked hear pleasantness.

First, some formal observations:

Note the acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet. That form goes back at least to King David (e.g., Ashrei, Mizmor 119, and more), and Yannai was known for its application. His audience was surely alert to his use of the device, and eager to hear his talent at composing lines that are not only meaningful and rhythmic, but also clever, in the most formalistic sense of the word.

The rhythm of this piyut (syllabification, and so on) is not always measured or regular. When the piyyut is read out loud, it is not balanced, in contrast to so much poetry prior to the modern era. One might think it’s just bad poetry, but Yannai knew what he was doing: that imbalance throws the listener off balance, and intentionally so. After all, the very first line of the poem addresses the imbalance in the presentation of the blessings and the curses. We should not be surprised that he weaves the point into the aesthetic of his piyyut as well; in this case, form follows meaning.

The paytan address his concern about this lack of parity to God: “You abbreviated Your discussion of the blessings, and increased the number of curses!”

But Yannai is not outraged. He gives God the benefit of the doubt, and provides Him with an explanation that recasts the message of the Tokhehah. Namely, “in order to teach righteousness/ uprightness to the future generations” — the generation that wandered the desert is not the main address of any part of Deuteronomy – “so that they will fear the ethics of Your Torahs.” This plural at the end of the line may indicate that future generations are exhorted to pay attention to both Written and Oral Torahs. It also may be no more than a linguistic play, so that the internal rhyme of this line works (dorot/Torot).

Line 3 is where things get interesting: You revealed Tokhehah to Your Chosen People/ because it’s good to have Tokhehah revealed.

It does not end as you might have expected it to.

We might have expected: “because You knew we’d do wrong.” Or “because You care about us.” Or a myriad of other possibilities. Instead, we get what appears to be a tautology: You revealed it because it’s good that it’s revealed (tautological only if you start with the assumption that all God does is good, of course, even when we don’t comprehend His ways). Furthermore, we learn something: it is good for the statement of rebuke and punishment to be out in the open. Why that is bears further investigation…

Line 4: Know whether he’s a wise one whom you love…

“He” here being the Children of Israel. Note the play of “im” (whether) with “am” (nation) -– and the reference to the previous line of “am lekha segulah” (Your Chosen People). And remember that “da’at” (know), as a verb, implies powers of discernment. That is, not just taking in information, but distinguishing between or among. In this case, determining whether the Jewish people possess wisdom.

Why “wisdom”? Because when one rebukes one who is wise, the one who is wise loves the rebuker. Note that the subject who loves has shifted — from God (who loves the Jewish people) to the wise one (i.e., the Jewish people themselves). This inference turns the mishnah in Avot on its head. Instead of the usual understanding that the one who is wise learns from all he or she is exposed to, we may read it to suggest that the wise one suffers rebuke from anyone and everyone, learning not to do what they indicate is wrong.

By contrast, in Proverbs 9:8, where these words originate, the wicked one and the fool never hearken to rebuke — for that matter, they aren’t even aware of wrong-doing, and are more likely to think themselves on top of the world. Proverbs frowns on them, and for good reason.

Line 5: The one who teaches Ethics won’t despise it; the one who hears rebuke won’t chafe at it.

In another direct quote from Proverbs (24:25), Yannai takes refuge in a little self-deprecating humor, even as he combines prayer, poetry, and parashah, standing amidst the congregation and preaching that they do the right thing. Indeed, he apparently validates the enterprise of trying to do the right thing, never mind that human nature turns us away from rebuke. Similarly, though the attempts to “work on oneself” are not only commendable, but also very much in vogue during this season of Elul, most people have great distaste for the sanctimonious, “holier than thou” attitude that some acquire when they delve into self-improvement.

And the second, parallel half of the line: “the one who hears rebuke won’t chafe at it…” assumes a wise one, of course. Dr. Bryna Levy has pointed out that the image of “yakutz” as something bothersome to be well rooted in the image of a thorn (kotz) –- that is, the thorn in one’s eye, that is so bothersome and irritating, until one can finally blink it away. One who hears rebuke will not relate to it as a thorn that irritates.

Note the active role of one who teaches Ethics” in the first half of the line, as compared to the passive “hearing rebuke” – they are the opposite tasks, and for neither —  not speaker nor hearkener — will the Tokhehah prove burdensome. What a strange notion, for anyone who has given or received rebuke.

And our last line of parallels, from line 6:

ve-la-mokhihim // la-mukhahim

amnom // im

yin’am // yun’am

To some degree, this kind of word play is simply the way Hebrew works, but Yannai deserves the credit for manipulating the language so well.

That is: in this last line, Yannai reduces the concerns, found in the Sefer ha-Hinukh, that one should not articulate any rebuke unless it will be accepted. Rather, he provides the positive spin: any who rebukes pleasantly will be received well (perhaps the gentler “chide” is a more suitable translation). Presumably, this point is all the more accurate when human beings hear rebuke by the Divine, literally a Godly opportunity to improve themselves.

* * *

Yannai begins with the obvious – the imbalance between blessing and curse in the Torah itself. And he gives a less-than-obvious explanation: we are to glean ethics from the formal rebuke. The reward and punishment goes beyond a litany of potential consequences — were that the primary intent of the Torah, blessing and curse should have been in equal measure! Rather, we become partners with God, as it were, in our hearkening to the Tokhehah, distilling the rebuke to derive from it what we need to do to avoid the punishment, and uphold tzedek — developing our own righteousness. In doing so, we enhance our own observance of mitzvot -– and conveniently avoid the consequences outlined in the Tokhehah.

But the piyyut goes beyond the usual fear of punishment. It is good that the Tokhehah is revealed to God’s Chosen People — essentially, an expression of God’s love for us. And “ahavah” is the focus of the following line — both God for Jewish people, and their love for Him. This divine love provides a new backdrop for the Tokhehah: instead of the angry vengeful God that the non-Jews find in the Torah, the Divine who rebukes only because of His love for us — and wants us to receive the Tokhehah in that light.

Shulamit Elitzur points out that in hearing the Tokhehah as chiding from love, we understand that the parashah refers to the blessings in a subtle, tricky way — and that the imbalance between blessing and curse is rectified as well. Meaning, we deepen our relationship with God not only by doing right, but even by doing wrong — and hearing rebuke, and learning from it, and drawing near to God.

The connection to Elul is self-evident.

* * *

One last bit.

The kedushta continues, and Yannai moves on from the lashon of “yishma” that he used in line 6. Keep in mind that the triennial parashah he his explicating “Ve-hayah im shamoa tishma…” The acrostic continues, with a preponderance of the shoresh “shin, mem, ayin.”

  1. זכה איש ושמע מעט / מהרבה ישמע // ועתה אם שמע / לעתיד ישמע
  2. חדה לשמע להוריו / ולקול מוריו // בניו אחריו/ ישמעו אמריו
  3. טוב ישמע כל שומע ועושה / ורע ישמע כל שומע ולא עושה
  4. י-ה רצונו תשמע / ופללו תשמע / כמו מקדימי למשמע

 

  1. One who merits and hears little / will hear from many // and one who hears / will hear in the future.
  2. One is happy who hears his parents / and the voice of his teachers // his children after him / will hear his utterances.
  3. It is good to hear all who hear and do (take action) / and bad to hear all who hear and don’t do.
  4. God, His will be heard / His judgement be heard / like those who acted before hearing.

The emphasis on “shma,” hearing, is not an accident. If you count them, you’ll see that the root appears 13 times. Consider that the 13 “Middot” — merciful attributes of God — are invoked throughout the liturgy of this High Holiday season in prayer that God will judge the Jewish people with mercy.

The allusions of these last four lines are extensive – from the notion that keeping mitzvot is its own reward to the Vidui confession of the High Holidays to the idea that knowledge without action is wicked, and the stance of the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai, when they accepted the Torah upon themselves before they really knew what it was all about.

Indeed, Yannai’s implicit shift in focus to Torah observance was a necessary message to his medieval audience. It’s the parashah of the Tokhehah, after all. But with his positive spin: keep mitzvot — and enjoy an enhanced on-going eternal relationship with God.

And in case you doubt that is his meaning, consider the 11th line, beginning with the letter “kaf”:

כל השומע לך שומע / עד לא ישמיע שמע ישמע

All who hear You hear / before the hearing is made heard that He will hear.

Which is to say, slightly less cryptically, that those who hear the words of Torah hearken to God, even before it comes to making one’s personal prayer known to to Him for Him to hear — in this season of turning to God in repentance.

Just imagine that you were in Yannai’s congregation. How much literary allusion and alliteration and poetic word play to teach a radically creative rejoinder that emerges from the weekly parashah, while recasting the intimidating rebuke in an altogether different light. Would the medieval poetry be as abstruse in its own era? Given the known popularity of Yannai in this role, presumably not.

May we learn Yannai’s lesson, and appreciate the rebuke God has in store…and may we be wise and grow from the chiding with love.

The above is a revision of a post-season written shiur for the fine students of the 2004 Beit Midrash Program at Camp Morasha.

About the Author
Anne Gordon is the deputy editor of Ops & Blogs at The Times of Israel and a co-founder of Chochmat Nashim. She has taught Judaic Studies widely, in the US and Israel, and studied in the various women's batei midrash for nearly a decade. She is a graduate of Drisha Insitute's Scholars Circle and holds a BA in History & Philosophy and an MA in Judaic Studies from Harvard University, and is ABD in her pursuit of a PhD in Jewish Education.
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