Commentary for Ki Tavo

12 Sep

During the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish calendar, there is a widespread custom to blow one shofar blast at the end of each weekday morning service. The purpose of these shofar blasts is to serve as a wake-up call to the community to remind them that the High Holidays are coming, and that the season of repentance has started. Similarly, the Torah portions read during Elul all feature a very strong emphasis on ethical behavior and devotion to God, with Moses telling the Israelites how they should act when they cross into the Promised Land, and what they had better not do if they don’t want to get kicked out.

This focus is most evident in this week’s parshah, as Deut. 27:15-26 is a long series of curses in the form of “accursed is the man who does sin X,” while the next section, 28:1-14, is a list of all of the different ways that the Israelites will be blessed if they follow God’s commandments. The next section of verses is the Tochacha, a harsh, explicit, two and a half column-long warning of all of the terrible things that will befall the Israelites should they turn away from God. Because of its extraordinary length (it is the longest aliyah in the Torah by half a column), and the custom to read it quickly and with a subdued voice, the Tochacha is often talked about as the main highlight of this week’s parshah.

The dark, frightening nature of the Tochacha is starkly contrasted by this week’s Haftarah, chapter sixty of Isaiah. The Haftarah speaks of the redemption of the Jewish People (after they have recognized their sins at the end of the previous chapter) and the blessings of peace and prosperity that God will bestow upon them. The Haftarah closes with the promise “I, the Lord, in its time will hasten it in its appointed time (60:22),” which, according to Rabbi Alexandri in tractate Sandhedrin, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi noted to be an apparent contradiction: If something has an appointed time, then if it is hastened, that means that it is not being done in its proper time. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi resolves this contradiction as follows: If the Israelites merit redemption before its appointed time, then God will not hold it back, but if they do not, then God will hold back redemption until its appointed time (Sanhendrin 98a).

In essence, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is telling us that we have two choices: we can either follow God’s ways and try to contribute to bringing the Messiah early, or we can choose the path of the wicked, and risk facing God’s wrath until such a time does come. In the examples of the Haftarah and the Tochacha, we see this same choice laid out before us. The High Holidays are coming. We can either repent, try to correct our behavior, and devote ourselves to better following God’s ways, or we can spend another year ignoring our responsibilities to God and to the creation and maintenance of the just society God demands, until it comes back to bite us.

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