J.J Gross

Understanding Ruth and Naomi; and the logic of the curses on Mt. Eival (Ki Tavo)

The opening chapter of Parshat Ki Tavo (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26) uses the term “ה אלהיך”, Adon-ai Elohekha” no fewer than eleven times in its 19 verses.

In most of these instances it is Moshe addressing the individual Israelite. In one instance it is the wording the individual Israelite must use when presenting his bikurim/first fruits offering to the kohen:וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֑ם וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֗יו הִגַּ֤דְתִּי הַיּוֹם֙ לַיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּי־בָ֙אתִי֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ …(26:3). In one instance (26:7) it uses the term “ה אלהי אבותינו” (first person plural) and in one instance (26:14). “ה אלהי (first person singular).

Only once does “Adon-ai” appear unaccompanied by any variant of “Elohim” וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהֹוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ (26:8).

The first question is why the need for the “Elohim” altogether. Surely the Bnei Israel understood very well who ”Adon-ai” is without the reinforcing noun “Elohim”.

Furthermore, what is the implication of “Elohekha” – your G-d in the second person singular? Shouldn’t the phrasing be “Adon-ai Eloheinu”, our collective Elohim, or the simpler “Adon-ai Elohim”?. After all wasn’t it Moshe’s “Elohim” also? Or, as in the case of 26:3, is it only the kohen’s Elohim, not the Elohim of the individual jew who is bringing the bikkurim?

And why, in 26:8 is the Elohim dropped altogether: ויוציאינו ה ממצרים ביד חזקה, (and G-d took us out of Egypt with a strong hand), and likewise in 26:18 “ה האמירך היום להיות לו לעם סגולה”, G-d separated you today to be for Him a chosen people?

I would like to suggest that there is a distinction to be made here between the Ado-nai and the Elohekha insofar as the former is referring to G-d as the unquestioned, overarching ruler of the universe, while the Elohekha is the same G-d personalized and customized to the individual Israelite.

As is true for most of us (and I speak for myself) who are nominally believers; we accept in the abstract that there is Ado-nai out there, and that this is His universe. But that’s where our awareness, indeed our very consciousness of His presence, stops. Which is why Moshe, when addressing us as individuals, adds the Elohekha as a pointed reminder that G-d’s macro-presence does not obviate His micro-presence. And this is something for which we need constant individual reminders.

A hint regarding this is embedded in our bikkkurim declaration to the kohen. After all, if anyone should need no reminder about who and what G-d is, it is the kohen. And yet each Israelite must tell “the kohen who shall be there at that time”; “הגדתי היום לה’ אלקיך כי באתי אל הארץ “I have told today to the Lord your G-d (Ado-nai Elohekha) etc.

Sforno explains that the reason the Torah says “the kohen who shall be there at that time” is because one cannot count on the kohen who is on duty to be particularly “great in wisdom”. Indeed, as hereditary priests, our kohanim come in all spiritual shapes and sizes, none of which diminish from their ritual privileges. We see this all the time when men of questionable character are called up for the first aliyah to the Torah, or ascend to the proscenium in order to give us the priestly blessing. Thus, clearly, kohanim often need a bit of a reminder that Ado-nai is not just in the sky, but that he is very much “Elohekha” the kohen’s individual G-d as well.

While I have not searched Scripture to verify this, I believe there is no single instance in the Torah when a ger (convert) is ever addressed with the term “Adon-ai Elohekha”. A convert is likely the only Jew who needs no such reminder. Having made the difficult choice of becoming a Jew, the ger is ever-mindful of his personal Elohim and needs no prodding. Perhaps this is why we are prohibited from ever reminding a convert that he is a ger.

Let us segue for a moment to the archetypal convert, Ruth and her famous words to Naomi ואלהיך אלהי and your G-d is my G-d.

What exactly was going on here?

We can take it for granted that Naomi wasn’t exactly a paradigm of spiritual awareness. Apparently, she had no problem abandoning Eretz Israel with her ambitious, assimilationist sons who sought their fortune among the Moabites. Nor do we sense any objection on her part to their marrying out of their faith. And, clearly had her sons prospered in Moab, and had they had children there, Naomi would have lived out her years among the gentiles and her gentile grandchildren with no second thoughts.

That she was returning to Israel was a purely practical decision. Bereft of her sons, penniless, starving, an alien in an alien land, she decides to go home and throw herself at the mercy of her kinfolk.

Hence it is hardly likely that Naomi served as any spiritual role model for her daughter-in-law Ruth.

By contrast, Ruth had absolutely no reason to go to Eretz Israel. She was a princess; young, beautiful, well connected, childless. In other words, she would have everything going for her had she chosen to remain in Moab.

We can therefore infer that Ruth’s motivation for going to Eretz Israel had nothing to do with her dead husband, and little to do with her former mother-in-law Naomi. Like our Patriarch Avraham, Ruth was a sui generis believer in G-d.

By declaring to Naomi ואלהיך אלהי it is Ruth who is prodding Naomi to remember who her G-d is, not the other way around. Much as Moshe is prodding each of us, and each of us must prod the, often subpar, kohen. Because like the kohen, and like the ordinary Israelite, we come by our status via the accident of birth. By contrast, Ruth achieves her status as a Jew by dint of her own personal revelation and discovery of G-d.

We can now understand why there is no mention of Elohekha” in verse 26:8. The reference to G-d who took us out of Egypt is pure “Ado-nai”, while the “Elohei avoteinu” (26:7) is a reminder of the personal Divinity made manifest to our forefathers as individuals.

At Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival

In the latter part of the Parsha we have the Bnei Israel shouting “Amen” to a series of curses, should one violate any of an itemized list of prohibitions.

The fascinating this is that virtually all of these prohibitions are common sense. One would think there is no need to single out such obvious offenses as encroaching on another’s turf; tripping a blind person (which includes cheating in business); cohabiting with one’s father’s wife or with an animal; or perverting the verdict of an orphan, widow or stranger. These are things about which we should need no reminders.

If anything, one would need reminders to drink halav Yisrael, or to consume only glatt kosher meat (and not just ANY glatt kosher meat), or to wear kaful shmoneh tzitzit with black stripes, or, Heaven forefend, to not hear a woman singing.

Yet, oddly enough, in very religious communities (of all faiths I may add) we know of too many cases of pedophilia, extra-marital affairs, incest, and unethical business practices. And there is no shortage of beth dins that pervert justice. At the same time, few among the devout need to be reminded not to drink ordinary milk, or consume ordinary kosher meat, or heaven forefend, attend a concert in which a woman’s voice might be heard.

Indeed, our generation has reached such spiritual heights that we are now enjoying gender-segregated buses, gender-segregated tombstones, and even gender-segregated sidewalks in the very neighborhoods where these other, seemingly obvious,  curse-worthy, violations, are occurring with distressing regularity.

Perhaps the time has come for us to be a little less frum and a little more ehrlich. How about we just keep basic kashrut for a while and not get into such a snit about kol isha; that we work a lot harder at our business ethics, and our respect for the inviolability of another’s turf. How about we become a bit less obsessive about black hats and a bit more focused on the integrity of beth dins. Somehow I don’t think it can hurt.

What do you think?

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.