Ki Tavo is described as Moses’ Second Discourse, Part 3: The Laws Given at Moab.
When farmers bring the first fruits to the Temple each year, and after they give the "poor tithe" every third year, they are to make certain declarations. These declarations are the only instances in the Torah that present the precise wording that must be recited in a layman’s address to God. They convey what Deuteronomy wished the farmers to find meaningful in these ceremonies.
Jewish tradition considers these verses, and the concepts and sentiments contained within them, to be so important that it commands every Jewish farmer in Israel to read them every year during a ritual that took place in the Temple at this time of year--in the summertime, between the Pilgrimage Festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot. This ritual is Bikkurim, the first fruits, in which every farmer in Israel is commanded to come every year to Jerusalem with the first fruits he has harvested of certain basic crops and present them as a gift to the priests in the Temple.
The central element of the ritual is the speech, contained in these verses, which the farmer is commanded to make every year at this time. In addition to the reading of these verses by the farmer when he brings his bikkurim, and, of course, the annual reading of them as part of the weekly Torah portion, the Rabbis also included them as one of the central elements of the Haggadah, which we read every year at the Passover Seder. That's how much importance the Jewish tradition attaches to these verses.
Let's take a look at them:
"When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, 'I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.'
The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God [this is where the speech each farmer must make begins, and it is from here that the Haggadah begins quoting and discussing this text:
"My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, and they gave to us hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.
"And you shall place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household." Whether we read these verses in synagogue as part of the weekly portion, or in Jerusalem as we bring our gift of the first fruits, or at the Passover Seder, as a central part of the Haggadah, we cannot help but be struck by the strength, beauty, and clarity of the message expressed.
The sense of thankfulness for having come home after years of difficult wandering ("He brought us to this place and gave us this land"), of being rooted not only in a geographical place but also in a society, a faith community, and in a nexus of gratitude, caring and charity ("And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me," "And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice") is strong, and is emphasized by the recurring use of three words: "bo" (to enter, arrive at, or bring), "aretz" (land), and "natan" (give).
Various forms of the word "bo"--to enter, bring, arrive--are used seven times in our section, referring to God's bringing the Jewish people out of Egypt and into Israel, and paralleling that with the farmer entering the city of Jerusalem and bringing the first fruits to the Priest in the Temple. Our yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which we bring the first fruits, and rejoice with "the Levites and the strangers among you" parallels the kindness of God's bringing us out of Egypt and into the Holy Land. "Aretz”--land--is mentioned five times in the section (and "makom"--place--is mentioned twice). This focus on place, on the rootedness and sense of belonging that the Israelite is meant to feel, is thus emphasized, and presented as a crucial element in the farmer's story. When we repeat this story every year at the Passover table, we are stating that it is not only the Jew who stands in the Temple in Jerusalem who is meant to have this strong sense of place. Every Jew, everywhere, every year, is meant to retell his national tale, his own and his people's' history, from the same 'place,' from a sense of rootedness in the land that God has promised to our forefathers and to us. "Natan" (giving) is used negatively when referring to the Egyptians--"and they gave to us hard labour," and positively, in terms of God's generosity--"...the land the Lord your God is giving you," "He brought us to this place and gave us this land." It is also striking that the section of the Torah which immediately follows this one deals with certain laws of the tithes which "you shall GIVE to the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow." The generosity of God in giving us the Land of Israel is contrasted with the cruelty of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and is meant to be echoed by our own generosity to others. The major difficulty in these verses is in the farmer's opening words, which is where the Passover Haggadah begins quoting this section, as mandated in the Mishnah in Tractate Pesachim: "Arami oved avi”--"my father was a wandering Aramean." Who is this father, why is he called an Aramean, and why was he wandering?
Different commentators are divided as to whether this refers to Jacob, who is here called an Aramean because his grandfather, Abraham, was originally from Aram, and/or because he spent many years in Aram hiding from his brother Esau and working for his father-in-law Lavan, or to Abraham and his ancestors, who originally came from Aram. The Haggadah, in fact, does not understand these words to mean any of the above options, but reads them, rather, as "the Aramean [identified as Lavan, Jacob's tricky father-in-law] tried to destroy my father." Some time after Lavan's attempt to destroy him, Jacob eventually made his way to Egypt, where the story continues with the Egyptian oppression of the Jews. If this speech is meant to be a synopsis of Jewish history, taking us from the horrors of slavery in Egypt to the joys of freedom in Israel, why begin with such a cryptic reference to our forefathers? Why this lack of clarity as to how our national history begins? How is it that the tradition has not decided how, and in reference to whom, our story begins? I think that the different interpretations of "Arami oved avi" must be taken together. "My father was a wandering Aramean" stresses the fact that we began as wanderers, not in our own land, not rooted in a country and community, and known by a name which was borrowed from others and whose meaning is now not clear to us. That situation of wandering, of homelessness, is not in opposition to, but, rather, should be closely identified with "The Aramean [Lavan] tried to destroy my father." The wandering, the lack of rootedness, the lack of context, leads to violence and hatred being aimed against us. We are, in such a situation, subject to the whims of those around us, we are victims.
I think it is also suggestive that in the two interpretations, both we and our oppressors have the same name--Aramean. In exile, our very identity is in fact a threat to us, our existential condition is inherently threatening. The confusion among the commentaries as to what this opening phrase means parallels the confusion of the reality the phrase describes; out of our land, out of our community, out of our historical narrative, it really is unclear who we were, where we were going, and what was happening to us. Our identities in Exile were limited to that which threatened us. It is only once our situation as wanderers/victims is rectified, and we arrive and thrive in our own land, and see ourselves as actors in a coherent narrative, that we can begin to function as the individuals, and society, we were meant to be. Only once we are rooted in a knowledge of and gratitude for God's kindness, and understand ourselves in terms of that kindness, and are grateful for it, can we commit ourselves to echoing that kindness with the help we give to others. For me, all the basics of classical Zionism are expressed in these few verses; the confusion, uncertainty, and dangers of Exile--the way it shrinks our identity to that of rootless victim. The moral, theological, and historical underpinnings of our presence in the Land of Israel, and the possibilities which that presence opens up for us. And, crucially, the commitment to social justice and communal concern which, as a result of our claiming our own place in this Land and within this narrative, is the responsibility of each and every one of us.
"On this day God commands you to carry out these laws and social ordinances with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall, today, hearken to God and promise to keep all God's laws. Today, God said that you shall be a people belonging to God alone. God will place you high above all the nations God has created. You will be a proclamation for God's Name and for God's glory. You shall be a holy people to God.
"When you enter the promised land, you shall make an altar with stones to God with the words of this Teaching. You shall make offering there and rejoice before God."
The parsha now moves towards its climax, invoking blessings on those who will be faithful to God’s message and calling down a series of curses on those who would depart from the Torah’s norms. The curses culminate in a warning called the Tokhehah (reproach) similar to the one found in the final parsha of Leviticus.
'Cursed is the man who makes a graven or molten image which is an abomination to God.
'Cursed is he who moves the boundary marker of his neighbor.'
Cursed is he who misleads a blind man, or twists what is rightfully due to an orphan or stranger or widow.'
‘Cursed is he who commits incest, with parent or step-parent or sibling. Cursed is he who lies with any animal.'
'Cursed is he who strikes down his neighbor in secret or a takes a bribe to strike down a man in innocent blood.
Cursed is he who does not uphold the Teaching to carry them out.
Following all of these curses, Moses adds 'And all the people shall raise their voices and say, 'Amen.'
And now he turns to a positive note and explains the advantages of following Gods laws:
"If you hearken to God and carry out God's commandments, God will set you above all the nations of the earth. You will be blessed in the city and in the field. Blessed will be the fruit of your body and the fruit of your soil and the fruit of your livestock. Blessed will you be when you come in and when you go out.
"God will deliver your enemies. God will raise you up as a holy nation and you will walk in God's ways. God will give you rain in its season and bless all the work of your hand. You will lend to many nations but you will not borrow. God will make you a head and not the tail, you will be only above and not below if you hearken to God's commandments.
And then abruptly, Moses is back to admonishing us again - "But it shall come to pass that if you will not hearken to the voice of God, nor carry out God's commandments that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you. Cursed you will be in the city and the field, cursed will be your fruits of your body and soil and livestock. Cursed will you be when you come in and when you go out. God will unleash against you the curse, and you will be restless and feel guilt in everything to which you put your hand, so that you will be destroyed because of your wickedness in forsaking God.
"Since you did not serve God with joy and with gladness of heart, therefore you will serve your enemies whom God will send against you. If you do not fear God's Name, then God will send to you plagues and sufferings and sicknesses that are evil and enduring. And you will be left only few in number instead of as you were like the stars of the heavens.
"You will be scattered among all the peoples from one end of the earth to another and serve other gods. Among these nations you will find no peace and your heart will be full of trembling and grieving of the soul. You will have terror night and day and no faith in your life. You will be returned to slavery. These are the words of this Covenant at Moab."
Moses called out to Israel, and said, "Before your eyes in the land of Egypt, you have seen all that God did to the Pharaoh, his servants and his land. These great acts of proof you have seen. I led you for forty years in the wilderness and your clothing and shoes did not wear out. You neither ate bread nor drank wine nor strong drink to know that God is Your God. And you came to this place and your enemies were driven away. Therefore keep carefully the words of this Covenant so that you may practice intelligently everything you do."
The laws in all their detail are now concluded. This passage sums up Israel’s duty to obey them wholeheartedly and underscores the fact that, beyond being mere items of a legal code, they are the very basis of the relationship that God and the people Israel have established. It is not only an emotional or spiritual association but also entails mutual obligations with consequences.
And finally, the parsha details a ceremony that is to mark Israel’s arrival in the land. In Chapter 27, verse 1, we read,
"Observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching. When you cross over to enter the land that Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you – upon crossing the Jordan you shall setup these stones, as I charge this day, on Mount Ebal, and coat them with plaster. There, too you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them, you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God. And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly.”
Then in final preparation for the tribes to enter Israel, Moses divides the tribes so that once in Israel they will receive the blessings of following the covenant and the curses for not. He instructs the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin to stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken and for Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali to stand on Mount Ebal when the curse is spoken. This is a highly dramatic and effective way to illustrate the positive and negative consequences for following or not following the laws.
Parsha Ki Tavo forces us to look at several issues very seriously. Here are two of them:
The concept of being chosen
The reward-punishment continuum for obeying-not obeying the laws and the irrefutable evidence that bad things happen to good people
What do you think it means to be chosen? Why were we, the Jews chosen?
The notion of Jewish chosenness has its root in several biblical verses. One of the most prominent, Deuteronomy 7:6, says, "For you are a people consecrated to Adonai your God: of all the peoples on earth Adonai your God chose you to be God’s treasured people." The next two verses provide the reason for this choice. God did not choose the Israelites because of their numbers; rather, God chose the Israelites and freed them from slavery because God loved them and because God had made promises to their ancestors, the biblical patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This, of course, begs the question: why did God choose the patriarchs?
In the Bible, the choice of Abraham is assumed and no explanation for it is given. In Genesis 12, God appears to Abraham without any introduction, and commands him to leave his father's home. But a rabbinic source--embraced and embellished by the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides--asserts that it was in fact Abraham who found God. Abraham alone among his contemporaries established the falsehood of idolatry, affirming that there was only one God who ruled the earth. It was only after this that God appeared to Abraham.
The covenant between God and the freed Israelite slaves at Mount Sinai is central to the idea of chosenness. The covenant concretized Jewish chosenness by establishing that the Israelites would abide by the Torah in return for special divine protection. Though God chose the Jews for this purpose, an amazing rabbinic source claims that the Jews were, in fact, God's last choice.
God first offered the Torah to the children of Esau, the children of Ammon and Moab, and the children of Ishmael, but when they were told about the Torah's prohibitions against murder, adultery, and robbery, respectively, they turned down the offer. Only after going to every nation in the world did God finally offer the Torah to the Jews.
This tradition assumes that chosenness is not an essential characteristic of the Jewish people, but rather a result of the covenantal relationship. Exodus 19:5 captures this view: "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples."
Many later thinkers embraced this conditional understanding of chosenness, but there is another strand of thought which maintains that chosenness derives from an inherent quality. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this view was the medieval philosopher Judah HaLevi (1086-1145). According to him, the Jews are endowed with "divine influence." This trait is passed on genetically, and it includes a capacity for prophecy and the privilege of receiving special divine providence. All the other nations of the world are subject to a more general providence and the whims of the natural world.
Interestingly, though some have seen this position as racist, it was embraced in different forms by some modern liberal thinkers. The Reform leader Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), for example, believed that Jewish chosenness is reflected in a "native talent for religion." But many modern Jews have been uncomfortable with the idea of chosenness, particularly the genetic variety.
Some thinkers, influenced by egalitarianism and universalism, rejected the notion of Jewish chosenness. Foremost among such thinkers is Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan was a humanist and a naturalist; he did not believe in a supernatural God that could bestow favor upon one nation, and he believed that it was practically and morally problematic to posit the fundamental superiority of one people.
Still, most forms of contemporary Judaism have not rejected chosenness, but have played down its importance or stressed its more benign interpretations.
Do you believe that people get what they deserve? Do you think God intervenes to punish people?
Here is the Chabad answer to that question:
You are bothered by the fact that people suffer undeservedly. As you should be. Any person with an ounce of moral sensitivity is outraged by the injustices of our world. Abraham, the first Jew, asked G-d, "Should the Judge of the whole world not act fairly?" Moses asked, "Why have You treated this people badly?" And today we still ask, "Why Gd, why?"
But what if we found the answer? What if someone came along and gave us a satisfying explanation? What if the mystery were finally solved? What if we asked why, and actually got an answer?
If this ultimate question were answered, then we would be able to make peace with the suffering of innocents. And that is unthinkable. Worse than innocent people suffering is others watching their suffering unmoved. And that's exactly what would happen if we were to understand why innocents suffer. We would no longer be bothered by their cry, we would no longer feel their pain, because we would understand why it is happening.
Imagine you are in a hospital and you hear a woman screaming with pain. Outside her room, her family is standing around chatting, all smiling and happy. You scream at them, "What's wrong with you? Can't you hear how much pain she is in?" They answer, "This is the delivery ward. She is having a baby. Of course we are happy."
When you have an explanation, pain doesn't seem so bad anymore. We can tolerate suffering when we know why it is happening.
And so, if we could make sense of innocent people suffering, if we could rationalize tragedy, then we could live with it. We would be able to hear the cry of sweet children in pain and not be horrified. We would tolerate seeing broken hearts and shattered lives, for we would be able to neatly explain them away. Our question would be answered, and we could move on.
But as long as the pain of innocents remains a burning question, we are bothered by its existence. And as long as we can't explain pain, we must alleviate it. If innocent people suffering does not fit into our worldview, we must eradicate it. Rather than justifying their pain, we need to get rid of it.
So keep asking the question, why do bad things happen to good people. But stop looking for answers. Start formulating a response. Take your righteous anger and turn it into a force for doing good. Redirect your frustration with injustice and unfairness and channel it into a drive to fight injustice and unfairness. Let your outrage propel you into action. When you see innocent people suffering, help them. Combat the pain in the world with goodness. Alleviate suffering wherever you can.
We don't want answers, we don't want explanations, and we don't want closure. We want an end to suffering. And we dare not leave it up to G-d to alleviate suffering. He is waiting for us to do it. That's what we are here for.