Parashat Ki Tavo

By Rabbi Emily Korzenik

Very early in the portion, Ki Tavo presents the
Torah as familiar and beloved.

My father was wandering Aramean and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great,
mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us . . . And we cried unto the Lord, and He heard our voice and saw our affliction. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. (Deut. 26: 5-8)

Immediately we are in the Haggadah, famously rejoicing at a Passover Seder. Reading this well known passage from the Torah scroll, we are reminded of how integral The Five Books of Moses are to Jewish life and celebration. That integration says something powerful about how and why our
ancient people continue with vitality undiminished. Our most beloved and celebrated holidays come word for word out of the Torah scrolls. We are told in the most direct way that Torah is the bedrock of our survival and vitality.

It is reasonable that parts of documents as old as the Five Books of Moses will seem remote and even strange to our 21st century minds. It is more surprising that so many of the moral laws propose a higher standard of ethical expectation than we impose upon ourselves today. Deuteronomy Chapter
26 describes the laws of tithing. ‘All of the increase of the third year shall be given to the Levite (who is landless), to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow that they may eat within the gates and be satisfied.’ How many of us even think that a certain percentage of our disposable income should be earmarked for tzedakah (philanthropy)?

In Chapter 27:11 Moses gathers the people to listen to the Levites who announce a series of acts that, if performed, would lead to God’s curse upon them. The Israelites dutifully responded ‘Amen’ as they are warned against each forbidden act; acts which are forbidden, if this people is to create a just and compassionate civilization. Among the many are,

Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark. And all the people shall say: Amen. Cursed be he who makes the blind to go astray in the way. And all the people shall say: Amen. Cursed be he who prevents the justice due to the stranger, fatherless, and widow . . . Amen. Cursed be he who smites his neighbor in secret . . .
Amen. Cursed be he who takes a bribe to slay an innocent person . . . Amen. Cursed be he who confirms not the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say: Amen. (Deut. 27: 19-19, 27: 24-26)

Moses assures the Israelites that if you follow the laws of God, ‘Blessed will you he in your coming and blessed will you be in your going out.’ (Deut. 28:6)

To all these laws we too would want to say ‘Amen’ knowing that these moral demands are as applicable to a just and compassionate society today as they were in Moses’ time.

Most of the second half of Ki Tavo is devoted to describing precisely the terrible punishments that will be visited upon the Israelites if they fail to adhere to God’s law and, alternatively, how magnificently they will flourish if they ‘observe the words of this covenant and do them.’

The understanding that God punishes for transgressing God’s laws extends from Torah to modern times. In his second inaugural address Abraham Lincoln puts forth slavery as the offense for which God gave to both North and South a terrible war.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue . . . until every drop of blood drawn by the lash be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’