Threats and Consolation

September 2, 2012

6 min read


Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )

Parshas Ki Savo is commonly referred to as the parsha of tochacha - "rebuke." It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah's laws (Deut. 28:15). It is interesting to note that this is not the first parsha which contains a lengthy rebuke. Parshas Bechukosai is similarly filled with a terrifying list of punishments which will befall those who fail to observe the mitzvot (Leviticus 26:44-45).

This raises two questions. Why was there was a need to repeat the threats after they were already described in gruesome detail in Parshas Bechukosai? Further, why don't the terrible curses described in our parsha conclude with words of consolation as do those mentioned in Bechukosai?

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh answers by noting that the curses detailed in Bechukosai are written in the plural, while those in our parsha are expressed in the singular. He suggests that the punishments mentioned previously are national in nature and will only transpire if the entire nation engages in inappropriate activities. For this reason, they are written in the plural. Our parsha, on the other hand, is expressed in the singular, as it addresses individuals who sin even at a time when the nation as a whole is behaving properly.

With this distinction, we now understand that the rebuke in Bechukosai ends with words of encouragement because it pertains to the entire nation. No matter how far they may stray, the Jewish nation is guaranteed a continued existence in the merit of God's covenant with our forefathers. Each individual within the community, however, isn't as fortunate. Since our parsha discusses the case of the individual who sins, it doesn't conclude with words of consolation, as they have no such assurance.

The Alter of Kelm uses this concept to resolve an apparent contradiction regarding the nature of Rosh Hashana. On one hand, it is considered a festive day, on which we dress in our finest clothes and eat enjoyable meals. On the other hand, the tone of the day is solemn. Hallel isn't recited due to the fear and trembling which accompany the knowledge that the books of life and death are open on this day. The Alter explains that as a nation, we are confident in God's mercy and conduct ourselves with joy and optimism. At the same time, each individual is filled with dread and terror at the recognition that he has no such guarantee.

As the Day of Judgment approaches, we may find comfort in this message. If we live in our own vacuums, we will be judged on our own merits in less than a month, a scary thought. However, our Sages teach that if we affiliate ourselves with a community, becoming part of our synagogues and volunteering to help with communal projects and organizations, we will share in their collective merits. As a result, we will enjoy an inscription for a year of health, happiness, and blessing.

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A farmer is required to bring bikkurim, the first ripened fruits of the seven species for which the land of Israel is praised, to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Deut. 26:5). There he presents them to a Kohen as a sign of gratitude to God for giving him a successful harvest. He then recites a declaration of appreciation for God's role in Jewish history. Rashi writes that this proclamation is made in a raised voice. Why does the Torah require the farmer to make this statement in a loud voice?

The following story will help us appreciate the answer to this question. Amuka, located in the north of Israel, is the burial place of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yonason ben Uziel. Amuka is famous for its mystical ability to help those who are longing to get married find their matches, and people travel there from around the world to pray for a spouse.

Although it is common for people to pray in Amuka with an intensity emanating from personal pain, somebody was once surprised to see a married woman praying there with great happiness. In her response to the onlooker's curiosity about this, she taught a beautiful lesson.

"I had a very difficult time with dating. Somebody finally suggested that I travel to Amuka, where I poured my heart out in prayer. Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to the man who is now my husband. I felt that if I came here to cry out from pain, it was only appropriate to return here to joyfully express my gratitude."

The S'fas Emes explains that every person's livelihood is dependent upon God's decree. Many times, this correlation is masked by events which make it appear that the person earned his income through his own creativity and perspiration. The farmer, on the other hand, has no difficulty recognizing that his financial situation is beyond his control and precariously rests in God's hands. As diligently as he plows and plants his land, he realizes that the success of each year's crop depends upon the frequency and intensity of the rains, factors completely beyond his control. After putting in his own hard work, he prays fervently that the rains should come in the proper amounts and at the proper times.

When the farmer's prayers are answered and he sees the first "fruits" of his labors, it would be easy for him to take credit for the successful harvest. The Torah requires him to bring his first fruits to the Temple as a reminder that his success comes from God, and he must express the appropriate gratitude for His kindness. One might incorrectly assume that mumbling a quick "thank you" under his breath suffices to fulfill this obligation. The Torah therefore teaches that in expressing appreciation, lip service is insufficient. The feelings of gratitude must be conveyed with the identical intensity with which one initially prayed. Just as the farmer screamed out with his entire heart beseeching God to bless him with a bountiful harvest, so too must he express his thanks with the identical raised voice.

So many times we cry out to God from the depths of our hearts for a desperately-needed salvation - to bear children, to find our spouse, to recover from illness, or for a source of livelihood. When our prayers are answered and the salvation comes, let us remember the lesson of the first-fruits and loudly call out our thanks with the same intensity with which we prayed in our time of trouble.

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Moshe instructed the people (Deut. 27:8) to write on stones all of the words of the Torah well-clarified. Rashi explains that "well-clarified" means that it should be written in all 70 languages, so that it may be easily read by anybody who wishes to do so. Why was it necessary to make the Torah accessible to the other nations of the world when the Talmud (Avodah Zara 2b) teaches that each of them was offered the Torah and refused to accept it?

Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin (Meged Yosef) notes that the Talmud (Shabbos 88b) teaches that even when the Torah was initially given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, each word that emanated from God's mouth was expressed in all 70 languages. He explains that several early sources write that although each of the nations of the world collectively rejected the Torah, there were individuals among every nation who did express a desire to accept it, only to be outvoted. The non-Jews who legitimately convert to Judaism in every subsequent generation are descended from these individuals who initially agreed to accept the Torah.

In light of this, it was necessary to give the Torah and to translate it in all 70 languages so that it would be accessible to those who sincerely desired to observe its laws, as their souls were also present for the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

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After the Jewish people initially accepted the Torah while standing near Mount Sinai, why were they required to reaccept it by standing on top of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival (Deut. 27:11-26)?

Rabbi Eli Munk (Peninim Vol. 6) distinguishes between the initial giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where the Jewish people were commanded to stand at the bottom of the mountain, and the reaffirmation of their commitment at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, where they were specifically commanded to ascend and stand on top of the mountains. The change in their positions vis-à-vis the mountain wasn't coincidental. Symbolically, it alluded to the fact that their original acceptance of the Torah was passive in nature, as they didn't yet know what was contained in the Torah. While important and necessary, this level of acceptance was insufficient. At this point, they had studied the Torah and its laws and were commanded to actively reaccept the Torah in order to transmit it to the next generation, as symbolized by their positioning on top of the mountain.

Rabbi Munk adds that this paradigm is a metaphor for the Torah study of every individual Jew, as he initially begins by learning the Torah's laws and inculcating them within himself. However, there must eventually come a time when he progresses to the higher level of accepting a responsibility to actively teach and share his knowledge with others in order to ensure the continual and eternal transmission of the Torah.

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