Parashat Ki Tavo is the 50th weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading.
Summary Parshat Ki Tavo
In this parashah, Moses tells the people that when they come into the “land of milk and honey” (“Ki Tavo” means “when you enter”) and have settled there, each of them is to bring a basket containing the first fruits of their harvest to the place that God will designate. After placing the basket on the altar, each pilgrim is to recite a prayer of thanksgiving – a prayer that summarizes the history of the people: Abraham and Jacob’s wanderings, slavery in Egypt, liberation, and the entry into the Promised Land. In addition, in every third year, they are to set aside one-tenth of their crop for the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow and recite another prayer, declaring that this commandment had been obeyed and asking for a blessing.
Moses and the elders then instruct the people to observe a unique ceremony once they have crossed the Jordan. They are to set up two large stones, coat them with plaster, and write the words of the Law on them. These stones will be set on Mount Ebal. In addition, they are to erect a stone altar and offer sacrifices there. Six of the tribes – those descended from Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel – are to stand on Mount Gerizim, which is green and fertile; and the remaining six tribes – those descended from Jacob’s concubines Bilhah and Zilpah – are to stand on Mount Ebal, which is barren. For their part, the Levites will stand in the valley between the two mountains and proclaim the blessings that will accrue to those who obey God’s commandments, and the curses that will befall those who disobey them. Chapter 28 begins by describing six blessings which include prosperity, physical safety, control over enemies, fertility, and knowledge of being a holy people. Verse 15 then begins a general description of the dire consequences if we don’t keep the mitzvot: disease, pestilence, heat, drought, sterility, defeat, death, blindness, madness, and dismay. Verse 30 begins to describe these punishments in even more horrible detail, and the descriptions continue to the end of the chapter. On account of these curses, this chapter is called the Tochacha or the “Warning.” (In some traditional congregations, the “Tochacha” is read in hushed tones, without the usual chanting.) The parashah ends with Moses’ reminding the people of the miracles that God has done for them during their wanderings for forty years in the desert – their clothes and sandals did not wear out, and all that they ate was provided for them by God.
Our medieval commentators have disagreed on the exact meaning of the words “Arami oved avi.” Rashi understood them to mean “destroyer,” and he thought that the “Aramean” referred to Laban who sought to destroy his nephew Jacob. Rashbam thought that the “Aramean” referred to Abraham, who was born and raised in Aram. For his part, Ibn Ezra thought that it was Jacob, who went down to Egypt.
According to Rabbi Gunther Plaut, the twelve curses in Deuteronomy 27 all relate to things that people do when they think they are alone and unobserved. And since they are acts committed in secret, they are “unpunishable by human courts.” He cites a story about what Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai said to his disciples when they asked him for a blessing before he died. “May you fear God as much as you fear other people,” he told them. “Only that much?” his disciples asked, clearly disappointed by his response. “You fear the disapproval of other people so much that you refrain from doing in public that which you readily do in private,” the great Rabbi answered. (Adapted from Berakhot 28b)
Some Thoughts and Questions
Think of Rabbi Yohanan’s answer to his disciples. How do you behave in public and how do you behave in private. What influences your public behavior? What other things impact your private behavior? What part does fear play in your public and private lives?
Ki Tavo describes the Promised Land as flowing with milk and honey. What do you think this means? Where is the “land of milk and honey” today? In what ways is it a place of miracles? What first fruits and blessings do you offer in this place?
Deuteronomy 27:18 curses one who “misdirects a blind person on his way.” In the same vein, Leviticus 19:14 commands us not to “place a stumbling block before the blind.” On the surface level, both of these passages instruct us in how to behave towards people whose sight is impaired. Can you think of what else this may teach us about treating other people – whether or not they have a visual handicap?
The rituals of bringing the first fruits to God in thanksgiving and for setting aside the poor tithe specify the only “fixed” prayer words recorded in the written Torah. What is the difference between fixed words (such as the typical response to the question “How are you?”) and words that are spontaneous? Are you more comfortable with unstructured personal prayer, or do you prefer the structure of the siddur service? When do you offer prayers in your own words? Is there a difference in your prayers when the words are your own or the words are from the prayer book? What are the best aspects of fixed and spontaneous prayer?
The “fixed words” referred to in question 4 above, include the text “My father was a fugitive Aramean .” (Deuteronomy 26:5-8). They are also found in the Passover Haggadah read each year at the seder. Compare these original verses in the parasha to the version in the Haggadah. (You’ll find it after the section on the Four Sons.) Are the versions the same? What are the differences? Discuss how and why you think the changes occurred.
Why do you think the Haggadah uses Deuteronomy 26:5-8 as its primary text instead of recounting the Exodus? (Hint: In a speech delivered before The Daughters of the American Revolution on April 21, 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt urged them to “remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”)
Read Deuteronomy 28:15-68. What images are the most horrible? Where do they appear in the description? Which of the curses would have an effect on the physical life of the people? . which are more psychological in nature? Which curse would be worst for an individual? . for the people as a whole?
Whether or not you tithe – that is give away 10% of your income – how do you participate in the mitzvah of tzedaka? What motivates you to give tzedaka? What deters you? In what ways does the giving of tzedaka reconnect you to Jewish life, tradition, and history?
Near the end of Ki Tavo, Moses speaks to the people telling them that even with all the signs and wonders ” . Adonai has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear.” Given what you know about the book of Deuteronomy, what does this mean? What role has memory played in your life? What does the phrase “I have not forgotten” mean to you? In what ways have you chosen “not to forget?” Our tradition constantly reminds us that we are to pay attention when we perform a mitzvah. Think of some times when you have carried out an activity without paying attention. What do you think you missed by not paying attention? How did it (or does it) affect your life or the lives of those around you? Why should we pay attention when performing amitzvah? Does it make the mitzvah of any less significance if one does not pay attention while doing it?