Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Ki Tavo 5764
September 4, 2004 18 Elul 5764
Guest commentator: Rabbi Howard Stecker, Senior Rabbi,
Temple Israel of Great Neck, New York
Given the complex nature of religious life, how can we most effectively communicate religious instruction? This question occupies rabbis, educators and parents alike. While the Torah contains no explicit discussion of educational methodology, the attempt to transmit religious teachings goes back to our earliest history and is the central theme of the series of parshiyot before the High Holidays.
The book of Deuteronomy, on some level, is an extended exercise in pedagogy. Moses, grudgingly accepting that his leadership is coming to an end, is deeply concerned that the lessons he is trying to impart might not be internalized after he dies. He delivers several discourses, reviewing the nation's history and stressing the observance of particular mitzvoth.
This week's parashah, Ki Tavo, offers a number of dramatic examples of religious instruction with implications for those of us who seek to transmit religious teachings today. I would like to explore several of these and to comment on their present-day relevance.
Ki Tavo begins with the ceremony of the first fruits, which was to occur after the Israelites entered the land. Each of the Israelite farmers, upon presenting his fruits, would recite a brief summary of the sacred history, focusing on the descent of the patriarchal family to Egypt, the suffering they endured there, the exodus of the nation and their arrival into the land God is giving them. Nachmanides points out that the farmer is giving gratitude to God with the specific fruit he brings, acknowledging at that moment that God has fulfilled the promise of the land (Ramban on 26:3). The gratitude is crystallized by the concrete offering of the fruit. One has to imagine that the engagement of the senses engendered by the fruit, as well as the recitation of the narrative by each farmer, served to reinforce the encapsulated national history. The farmers who had not directly experienced the initial events, nonetheless, were able to internalize their significance. Moreover, these events became part of their history as they offered the fruits of the land. It is not surprising that these verses constitute the core of the Pesah seder, which is a quintessential multi-sensory event aimed at instilling an appreciation of our shared history.
The Israelites are next instructed that when they enter the land, they are to create two sets of stones lined with plaster: one to be deposited on the far side of the Jordan; and the other on Mt. Ebal, near Shechem. On the stones, they were to inscribe "this Torah," which Rav Shmuel ben Meir interprets to mean all of God's principles, and may well refer to the blessings and curses that were to be uttered from Mt. Gerizin and Mt. Ebal (Rashbam on Deuteronomy 27:8). What is clear is that the stones were to present a written record that would be a lasting reminder of God's instruction. Barring the aseret hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, these written words constitute the first portions of the Torah to be recorded. For a community coming to terms with the authority of scripture, the engraving of the stones was an important part of the process. By commanding that scripture be written down, Moses intended to ensure that the Israelites would incorporate its teachings beyond the present generation. The impulse to write down religious teachings has remained strong throughout our history. Even instruction that was initially intended for oral transmission, such as that of the Mishna and Gemara, was written down, particularly during periods of transition.
The most dramatic event awaiting the Israelites once they crossed the Jordan, was the recitation of the blessings they would receive if they observed God's Torah, and the curses they would endure, if they did not. The tribes are divided into two camps, one standing on Mt. Gerizin during the recitation of the blessings, and the other standing on Mt. Ebal during the recitation of the curses. The Levites then list curses resulting from the abrogation of specific commandments followed by a catalog of blessings and an extensive inventory of curses. This litany of curses became known to the Rabbis as the tochecha, the warning.
The tochecha contains fifty-four verses delineating the consequences of disobedience. These penalties are varied, graphic and oddly poetic in their gravity. The people will suffer numerous plagues, they will be overrun by a heartless enemy, they will resort to cannibalism. In the morning, they will yearn for evening, and in the evening, they will yearn for morning. Everyone will become meshuga, mad, from what he sees.
As an educational method, instilling fear is a widespread practice, even in our own day. The author, James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, presented a literal fire and brimstone sermon, delivered to students in a Jesuit school. It has some of the same relentless intensity as the tochecha.
But I suspect that many of us resist using fear as a source of motivation, and may, therefore find this part of Ki Tavo troubling. When we use fear, we may foster obedience but we are not likely to create an affectionate bond. The organic connection between the Israelite farmer and his crops and the historic destiny of his people, is likely not to be instilled through fear. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides focuses on the difference between fear and love as motivating factors. He concludes that while fear may work initially, ultimately love will yield a more lasting commitment to mitzvot.
In Ki Tavo, we can see the biblical imagination at work, with the objective of implanting in readers, an awareness of sacred history and a commitment to the laws that flow from that awareness. It is noteworthy that, with one significant exception, we use the methods described in the Torah even today. We try to create multi-sensory experiences, we write things down, we seize opportunities to dramatize certain points. And, we hope that those we try to reach will have moments when they feel like the ancient Israelite farmer, aware of his history, proud participant in that history, and grateful to God for the bounty in his life.
Rabbi Howard Stecker