These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Ki Tavo: Of Mountains and (a) Men: The Beautiful Mirrors of Empowerment

Posted on September 22, 2016 by Mira Niculescu

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In honor of fellow Pardes student Jonah potasznick for his bar mitzvah parasha. May he continue to be a men talking to other men, no matter where the mountains are!

Ki tavo is one of the last parashiot of the last book of the chumash, Devarim.

We are getting towards the end of the kernel of the Torah, the chumash or five books of Moses, the initiatic books that retells our tales of origin and offers us the heart of the ethical principles according to which a Jew is meant to live. So powerful is the narrative, and so powerful the ethical teachings, that this book became also the seed of Christian and Muslim theology, a Jewish offering to the world.

Devarim, which we call appropriately the Mishne Torah (repetition of the Torah), retells of the four previous books of the chumash. But towards the end, like with Parashat ki tavo, we are getting ready for what awaits us. Ki tavo, “when you will go”, announces what Bnei israel are meant to do when they enter the land that Hashem has promised them.

The first thing we are to do is a gesture of gratitude, and of acknowledgment: with the bikurim, the offering of the first fruit we are to bring forth from this new land in which we will have finally settled. We thank G.od/life for bringing us to this day, to this land, and for bringing forth sustenance for the earth, should we cultivate it. And while giving, our hands full of the basket of offerings, we are to retell solemnly all our story, from slavery to freedom, from wandering to settling, from receiving to cultivating and reaping.

So our first gesture of empowerment is a gesture of giving back, a declaration of gratitude.

We are then reminded to follow the precepts uttered in the aseret ha dibrot, the ten utterances at Sinai, and G.od asks Moshe to inscribe all the words of “this torah”, of “this instruction”, in stone. What subsequently occurs must have been a very strange and very powerful scene to witness: Moshe asks the twelve tribes to split themselves into two, and to position themselves on two mounts facing each other: Gerizim and Ebal.

French commentator Marc Breuer tells us that Gerizim is a blooming mount, full of flowers, while Ebal is the mount of desolation, of aridity. While split – Israel is standing on the side of each mount, facing each other, mirroring to each other, life for the springing mount, and death from the desolated one – the Levites pronounce a series of klalot, maledictions, that will befall on Bnei Israel if they don’t respect the divine instructions on how to live a good life. Following this series of klalot, comes an enumeration of the promises of blessings that Bnei Israel will be able to enjoy, if on the contrary they do live according to the precepts of Torah.

So far, we seem to be clearly involved in a logic of the stick and the carrot. A binary logic which, if efficient with donkeys, but also of course with children, who respond better to “dos” and “don’ts”. Threats and candies, doesn’t seem so compelling to me when it comes to mature, autonomous beings. Where is our agency, according such a scenario?

I want to suggest that in spite all appearances, this parasha talks very much about human agency, at this critical symbolic moment that precedes our entering the land, at this moment where the berith, our alliance with the divine is being reiterated. And that this human agency/autonomy is being displayed both visually and vocally.

First, visually. As above-quoted Breuer pointed out that in the shift of spatial organization that is being described in this scene, lies a significant symbolic message. A mount, considered schematically, is a cone, a triangle. In other words, it is like an “arrow” linking earth and sky; a connecting device through which divine energy descends and spreads down on the earth, while conversely- and reciprocally, human kavannah (intention) gathers to ascend. The theme of mount (Har), is a very important character throughout the Torah, as the third party which connects us and the divine (think Avraham and the Akeida, think Moshe and the lukhot, to give but two of our founding examples). So as Breuer notices, at the moment of the first alliance, the revelation on mount Sinai, the spatial display was as follows: bnei Israel were “at the foot of the mountain”, while the divine law was being revealed from the top of the mountain.

But this time, the spatial display seems reverted: the arch in which are enclosed the tablets of the covenant, is resting down in the valley, in between the two mounts of blessings and curses, so that Bnei Israel, facing each other on each slope, are overlooking it. So this time the “power relation” seems to be reverted: it is man who “dominates” the divine law. Moreover, in this scene, it is no more the land that descends on them, in a vertical flow of speech. It is them retelling it to each other, in a horizontal flow. This scene shows us that as Bnei Israel are about to enter the land, they have sufficiently incorporated (literally, taken into their bodies) the law, that they can mirror it back to each other, teach it to each other.

The time of the beginning of real life is the time where agency is in our hands. “Lo Be shamaim he”, the Torah is not in the sky, will the rabbis of the Talmud later remind G.od (Bava Metzia 59a-b), mirroring what Moshe will announce to them in parashat Nitzavim in order to empower them. “Be picha, uBelevavekha”, will Moshe further explain. In your mouth and in your heart. So the law is really neither on top or at the foot of a mountain, but inside of each of us. This is called, in human education, integration. When one can internalize life principles so that it can structure one’s life; so that one’s life can have an orientation, and not be all over the place, like in the initial “tohu vabohu”, the initial cosmic chaos.

So a very powerful lesson of human agency is being hinted at in the very description of the scene.

And that brings me to my second question. Why, then, the amen and not a simple “yes”, as a sign of acceptance of the decrees? Amen is a word we say all the time in Judaism, after each prayer, after each brakha. It is one of the first words that kids learn in the Jewish liturgy, because it is so easy to remember. And perhaps we say it so often and automatically that we may not have taken time yet to reflect on what it means, what it actually says.

And the truth is, in itself, the word doesn’t really mean anything. But its roots, alef, mem, nun, connect it to a very powerful word in the Jewish tradition: emuna, which we tend to translate as “faith” or belief; but more deeply, it speaks of “confidence”, of “trust”. So in this scene, Bnei Israel don’t say “yes” to curses; they don’t merely accept the terms of the contract. They say something much deeper. They say, “yes we believe in this. In fact we trust that yes, this divine law, this law of nature, is trying to protect us, by reminding us of what is called in other traditions the laws of “karma”, the natural law of causes and consequences: that every action has a consequence, so that if I do something unkind, unethical, destructive, this is also what I will get in return, no matter when, no matter how; and that if I do something good, with wholesome intentions, life will give back a similar response, will mirror back with a smile, no matter how, no matter when.

But there is another level of reciprocity implied in the concept of “emuna”. In jewish liturgy, emuna appears in very central place. But interestingly, not as “emounatenou, our faith/confidence” or emounati, my faith; rather, as “emunatekha”: your faith. Who is “you”? The prayer “tov lehodot l’hashem”, “how good it is to acknowledge –to praise- G.od”, which I love so much to sing on Shabbat, ends on this sentence: “ve emunatekha, ba leilot”, “and your faith, in the nights”; So in the night, this time of darkness, where perhaps our fears and worries arise, while the dark of the night enshrines us, we sing how good it is to feel how much hashem has “faith in us”, “confidence in us”. How much strength does that give, to tackle our moment of vulnerability, the nights of our days and perhaps of our soul!

There is this beautiful Hassidic story I heard from Rabbi Shlomo Katz, that he told during one of his concerts, in which he spoke about this Jewish merchant travelling and stopping in a little hostel; there he sees a yiddele, a little Jew, a poor humble shtetl Jew, in the large downstairs room; and this little Jew is shining. The merchant is puzzled and can’t stop looking at him, and he goes to sleep really shaken. He sees him again the next evening, and again the next evening, and the yiddele is shining even more ‘like Moshe when he came down from Har Sinai”; and in the end, our merchant, who is a pious man, can’t take it anymore, and he asks, “tell me, yiddele, who are you? Where do you live? Where do you learn? Who is your rebbe”?

He wants to understand the secret of the radiance of the little Jew.

But the yiddele seems surprised, and replies, almost stumbling on his words: no, no sir, I don’t have a Rebbe. I’m just a simple Jew. I don’t learn Torah, I can’t read. So I don’t really do the tefilah either. The merchant can’t believe it. Really? But how come you are shining that much? There must be something you do, there must be something.

No sir, I am sorry, really…. nods the yiddele….

But wait, there is, one thing that I do.

Every night when I go to sleep, I speak to G.od and I say, ribonno shel olam, (“Master of the world”), if you think I don’t have anything anymore to give to this world, then tomorrow morning, don’t wake me up. But if you do think, that I still have something to give to the world, then yes, wake me up.”

And indeed, the first words we are to utter in the morning when we wake up are to thank G.od for “bringing back our soul within us” – for waking us up that day, too. And we conclude by “Rabah emunatekha”. “Great is your faith”; – Your faith, in us!

Like the yiddele in the Hassidic story, every morning, by thanking God to be alive, we really thank Him to trust us enough that we merit to be here. This may be what the Talmud means, when telling us, in tractate Shabbat 119b, that the root of amen is a contraction of El Melech Ne’eman, “the king who trusts”. Maybe we can trust ourselves, and others, and God, perhaps because in the first place, we are entrusted. Maybe this is what we mean when we say “amen”, we trust. We are mirroring back what is given to us.

So this moment of Garizim and Ebal, of the blessings and the curses, when we have internalized the laws of life enough that we are able to mirror it to each other, and when we have understood enough how much we are entrusted that we can say “amen” back, are to me, against all primary appearances, an ultimate moment of human empowerment.

As Shabbat of Ki Tavo comes upon us, may we be blessed to being able to see the strength and confidence that is invested in us, and to give it back to the world with the same “emuna”.

Shabbat shalom!

Mira Niculescu