Commentary for Ki Tavo

4 Sep

A few weeks ago the parshah started off with the following declaration: “See, I set before you this day blessing and curse. The blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day. And the curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God and turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day (Deut. 11:26-28).” In this week’s parshah, those blessings and curses are laid out for us- especially the curses- in all of their gruesome details.


Starting with Deut. 26:16, we get a section that tells us that if we obey all of God’s commandments, God will “set you in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made, and that you shall be as God promised, a holy people to the Lord your God (Deut. 26:19).” We then get a list of actions which will result in the perpetrator being cursed, spanning from 27:15-26. Chapter 28 starts with a short list of the ways we will be blessed if we follow God’s word, but then continues with the longest aliyah in the Torah, which is a detailed list over fifty verses long of all of the terrible things that will happen to us if we turn away from God.


The sections containing the curses are read quickly and in a hushed tone of voice, to get them over with as soon as possible, and the section of curses from 27:15-26 are each separated into their own verses with special formatting in the Torah with long cantillation at the beginning of each. These changes from the norm cause these verses to grab our attention, whether we are reading or listening, and cause us to focus on their content.


One would think that if the curses are read quickly and quietly (because they are things we don’t want to happen to us), then the blessings would be read extra slowly and extra loudly, but they are not. In fact, there is nothing done in the formatting of the text, the speed of the reading, or the cantillation that accompanies it to give us any indication that the great rewards God will heap upon us if we act how God wants us to are anything special. This is precisely because we should not be thinking of it that way. Mitzvot should not be looked at as thing that we can go out of our way to do in order to earn brownie points with God. Instead we should be looking at them as a base state: We should be following in God’s ways and acting morally because that is the right thing to do.   The blessings are not highlighted in any way because we shouldn’t see acting morally as something out of the ordinary.


The choice that was given to our ancestors in the Torah is still before us today: Do we want to turn away from God? Or do we want to work with God to build the better world that God reveals to Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?

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