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Parashat Ki Tavo 5781

August 26, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tavo
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)Many of us spend an incredible amount of time figuring out how to make someone else listen, whether it’s to our instructions, our needs, our anxieties, or just our day-to-day thoughts and feelings. Listening seems like it’s in short supply. Wanting to be heard, however, is abundant. Moses was no stranger to this phenomenon. His speeches make up the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy. And his repeated command, “Listen!” peppers these speeches.

In this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, Moses elevates the pitch of his final speech, detailing a dramatic series of blessings and curses that will be spoken to the people by the priests once they enter the land of Canaan, as the people stand up on two opposing hilltops. If his words aren’t enough to make them hear, maybe theater will help. The series of blessings and curses is prefaced by these verses:

Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of YHVH your God. Heed your God YHVH and observe the divine commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you this day (Deut. 27:9-10).

Deuteronomy 27:9 uses an unusual word haskeit, which is translated as either “Silence!” or “Pay attention!” This word is a hapax legomenon, meaning a word that only appears once in Tanakh. In the related languages Arabic and Akkadian, it means to keep silent (BDB, 698). Haskeit is coupled with a more familiar word shema, meaning “hear,” “heed, “obey,” or “listen.” Whatever haskeit means, it seems extraneous. If we are listening, are we not already silent? If we are listening, aren’t we already paying attention? What is the function of this extra word? Does it simply increase the intensity of the command, or does it add an additional layer of meaning?

Midrash Tanhuma asks the same question on this verse, what does the word haskeit mean and what is it doing here? The midrash answers, inventing a fictional but meaningful etymology, it’s a combination of two words: has (be silent) and kateit (break down or pound). Therefore, Moses actually instructed: Pound your hearts and souls to hear the words of Torah, with all your heart. If “hear” or “listen” by itself could be read to simply mean “follow these instructions,” this additional word is here to make sure we internalize these words, imbibe them and fill our hearts with them. Rather than hearing with our ears and minds, we must hear these words with our entire bodies, our hearts, and our lives.

Once we have been both silent and broken down, we might be able to fully appreciate the rest of the verse: Today we have become the people of YHVH our God. When we fully internalize these words, we become people of God.

Conveniently, we can bring these words deeply into our hearts each day and thus re-commit ourselves to living in deep connection with the Divine each day. The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) teaches on this verse, “[This] is a reminder to the people that each and every day should be viewed…as a new opportunity…to deepen our commitment. In fact, each breath we draw presents us with new opportunities. It is as if the call from Sinai, several thousand years ago, still rings in our ears, and we are invited to respond to it.”

As we approach the Days of Awe, let’s respond to Moses’ call to be silent, to pay attention, to listen, and to pound our hearts and souls to hear the words of Torah, both our sacred texts and the sacred teachings of our own lives. May our listening invite us in to deepen our connections to both the Divine and our fellow human beings.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.