Our covenant with G”d takes on the formulations of a classic Suzerain-Vassal treaty from the Ancient Near East. The Suzerain says you must do all these things for you and I will protect and keep you. And if you do not do as I require, this is what will befall you. Pretty simple concept.
Now, contracting with a known quantity is one thing. A ruler, known for power, for keeping promises -someone who will do as he says – and you know it – if not first hand, then from reliable sources. Make a treaty with him-you provide him tribute, services, loyalty and whatever he requires, and in return you get protection and other benefits that come along with being allied with a great power.
But-make a treaty with an intangible? Pretty difficult concept for many to buy in to.
In Ki Tavo, our ancestors are told the secret that made it possible for them (however incomplete in the doing) to make a treaty with this intangible G”d.
וְלֹֽא־נָתַן יְהֹוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּֽה
D’varim 29:3 – “Yet to this day the L”rd has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”
Many have struggled with the meaning of these words, at the very end of Ki Tavo, which Moshe uses to start his final oration to the people (which we read next week in Nitzavim.) But a slight play in the Hebrew translation can give the words a different slant.
“But the Lord did not give to you a mind to understand, eyes to see, or ears to hear UNTIL THIS DAY.”
These people lived the miracles and wonders. As the prior verses state, they saw what G”d did for them in Egypt. They are the living witness that G”d can hold up his end of the bargain. Surely that is enough to for them to keep their end of the covenant. (Sadly, we discover it wasn’t, but that’s a story for another time.)
But what of us-so distant from those times-living in a age so apparently devoid of miracles and wonders wrought by Gd (although I daresay that one need only stop for a moment and look around, and they will surely find signs of G”d’s wonder and providence) ? What is our secret to keeping our part of the Suzerain-Vassal treaty with G”d in an age where G”d’s presence is not as apparently manifest as it was to (some of) our ancestors ?
The answer is back at the beginning of parasha Ki Tavo, in words that have become a central part of the Pesach Seder: Arami oveid avi.
“MY father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with US and oppressed US; they imposed heavy labor upon US. WE cried to the L”rd, the G”d of our fathers, and the L”rd heard OUR plea and saw OUR plight, OUR misery, and OUR oppression. The L”rd freed US from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He (sic) brought US to this place and gave US this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (JPS: D’varim 26:5b-9)
US, WE, OUR. How plain can it be. When we say or read these words, then we are part of US, WE, OUR. G”d did these things for us. G”d can and will do what G”d agreed to, if we will keep our end of the bargain. B’khol dor vador…in every generation we must act as it were we ourselves who were freed from slavery in Egypt. Each and every moment of our lives, this miracle happens again-for, had it not happened, we would not be here!
We’ve not done such a bang up job keeping our end of the covenant, so it should come as no surprise that perhaps G”d hasn’t fully lived up to promises either. Yet time and again G”d has forgiven us our weaknesses. G”d must have, for we are still here. Judaism may be a far cry from what is was in the time of Moshe, but it is still here, being practiced. It may be threatened with being torn apart from within, but it is still here. (If each of us truly believes that “Arami oveid avi” then we must do all we can to prevent Judaism from being torn apart.)
Yet, in this crazy world, it is sometimes so hard to believe. Questions of theodicy abound. Our society seems in the midst of moral decline, our species wantonly murders, natural disasters claim thousands of lives. Despite our societies knowledge of the evils of hate, despite even having lived through Hitler, hate still burns and rears its ugly head, attacking even young children.
We need hope. The rabbis knew this in their time and their decision to link Isaiah 60 to Ki Tavo is quite prescient. The words of these twenty-two verses are those of hope everlasting, in stark contrast to the gloom and doom of the curses in Ki Tavo. The message begins with a simple exhortation that, to have hope, we must embrace.
ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּֽי־בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ וּכְב֥וֹד יְהֹוָ֖ה עָלַ֥יִךְ זָרָֽח
“Kumi ori ki-ba oreich, ukh’vod Ad”nai alayikh zarakh.” Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; the glory of Ad”nai shines upon you” (JPS-Isaiah 60:1)
Now, go and read the other 21 verses and get your kemach, your sustenance. For these verses, from our parasha and haftarah alike illuminate the words “Im ein kemach, ein Torah. Im ein Torah, ein kemach.” Without sustenance there is no Torah. Without Torah there is no sustenance. (Pirke Avot 3:21)
Armed with this kind of hope and faith, we can persevere. But lest we forget that we have obligations to fulfill, and lest we forget from whence comes the source of our help, let us all remember, as the old song tells us, to “rise and shine” and then to do the most important part and “give G”d your glory, glory.”
©2015 (portions ©1999 & 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Ki Tavo 5774 – They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To
Ki Tavo 5773 – Catalog of Calamities (Redux and Greatly Revised 5760)
Ki Tavo 5772 – Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?
Ki Tavo 5771 – Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 – If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed…
Ki Tavo 5767 – Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z”l)
Ki Tavo 5763–Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760–Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5762–Al Kol Eileh