Commentary for Ki Tavo

23 Aug

This week’s parshah includes what is far and away the longest aliyah of the entire Torah. At a whopping length of two and a half columns, the sixth aliyah of the annual cycle (fifth on the triennial), known as the Tochacha (admonition), is longer than its closest competitor by about half a column. The reason this aliyah is so long is because we are not permitted to end an aliyah on a sad note, and the Tochacha, a final stern warning from Moses to the Jewish people, is, with the exception of the final verse, one giant list of all of the terrible things that will happen to the Israelites if they do not heed God’s commandments.

The custom has developed to read the Tochacha (aside from the last verse) quickly and quietly in a subdued voice, as if saying them in a regular manner will somehow cause them to come to pass. A similar thought process is seen in some Talmudic discussions where if, for example, the Rabbis are discussing what would happen if there were a flood, they will say ,for example, “if there were not a flood, the crops would be ruined” as if talking about a flood could cause a flood to come. This sort of thinking seems extremely out of line with the Jewish view on superstition; that it is silly, and that putting too much stock in it might actually be a form of idolatry. If we look closer, though, Judaism does have a few practices that seem to be very superstitious.

The most notable of these is the eating of the apple and honey (and various other symbolic foods) on Rosh Hashanah. The source for this custom appears to be two mentions of it in the Gemarah. One of them says that the food must be eaten (K’ritot 6a) while the other says that they only need to be looked upon (Horayot 12a). We make sure to say a short benediction asking God to fulfill a request symbolically related to the food in question (though this appears to have been a later addition), but in either case the Gemarah makes clear that having the food there is absolutely necessary for God to consider our request. The idea that the human action of eating or looking at a certain item of food could somehow force The Almighty to consider a request He otherwise wouldn’t goes against the core belief of Judaism that God is omnipotent.

The 13th century Rabbi Menachem Meiri says that the presence of the fruit is necessary to help us to remember to improve ourselves by associating an action with our request to God. Every time we eat an apple, we are reminded to be less bitter, and if we put forth an effort to be less bitter, God will lend us His strength and help us achieve our goal.

If we apply Meiri’s explanation to the custom to read the Tochacha quickly and quietly, we seem to run into a problem. If the goal of the Tochacha, which is always read just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, is to warn people to start changing their behaviors lest they be punished, then wouldn’t it be more effective to read the Tochacha very slowly and loudly, instead of quickly and quietly?

The Klausenberger Rebbe said that the Tochacha should be “read quietly when you are afraid that it might happen and you don’t know what is going to happen to you once it happens.” In the heart of the Yom Kippur service, right before the confessional, we say “we are neither so insolent or so obstinate to as claim that we are righteous and without sin, for we have surely sinned.” In this time of repentance we read the Tochacha quickly and quietly, with fear and reverence, to remind ourselves of the fact that we have not been perfect, and that we all need to work on improving ourselves.

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