Parashat Ki Tavo Erev Shabbat 27 August 2021
Week of 22-28 August 2020
Torah portion: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8   Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Theme: Walk in God’s ways

This week’s parashah takes its name from the words Ki Tavo, “when you enter”, and is primarily concerned with rituals and ceremonies that should be performed upon entry into the land (26:1-15, 27:1-26). These prescriptions are interspersed with a passage outlining the mutual obligations beholding to Israel and God regarding the covenant (26:16-19). What follows, is a series of blessings (28:1-14) and curses (28:15-68) related to the observance of the commandments (mitzvot) that Moses has already outlined in Deut 12-26. The parashah concludes with the opening verses of Moses’ final speech (29:1-8).

Both the blessings and the curses appear to have their own agency or “independent existence” with each being described as having the capacity to come upon and overtake the Israelites if they obey (28:2) or disobey (28:15) God’s commandments (Plaut, 1355). Interestingly, this litany of curses and a similar one found in Leviticus 26 were thought to be “so terrifying that the custom later arose to recite them in an undertone when reading the Torah aloud in the synagogue” (Eskenazi, 1202).

It should be noted that “the Hebrew text directs itself to the individual Israelite rather than to the people as a whole.” This highlights the role that individuals play as part of a collective, in either keeping or compromising the covenant (Plaut, 1364). Each person has a responsibility to keep the commandments and walk in God’s ways (halakhta biderakhay, Deut 26:17, 28:9). It is worth noting that the term halakhah has its origin in this formulation as “the normative path trodden by those who wish to follow God’s will, the life prescribed by Torah as fulfilled in the context of real, ongoing, and evolving human community” (Green, Kindle loc. 1101).

A Chasidic interpretation notes that the promise of blessing outlined in 28:2 is followed directly by an injunction to heed (tishmaꜥ) the word of the Eternal God, highlighting the importance of heeding God, “despite the blessings” (Plaut, 1366).

It is in this context that we move to the curses that will come upon the Israelites and overtake them if they do not obey the commandments and decrees of the Eternal God (28:15). This comprehensive list reflects the scope of experience that might be imagined by the biblical author and is “unabashedly realistic” in nature (Plaut, 1348). Whilst some of the curses correspond to the previously articulated blessings, many go far beyond them. 

Several commentaries note the similarities between the contents of Deuteronomy 28 and the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon from the C7 b.c.e.—the time when Deuteronomy was believed to have been written. The curses might also reflect the collective fears and insecurities of a post-exilic community, with material being included or amended after the exile in 586 b.c.e. (Eskenazi, 1200).

This week’s parashah reminds each of us that we have a part to play in ensuring that all people enjoy God’s blessings. Unfortunately, it is often the most vulnerable in our societies who seem to face the consequences of the curses most harshly and who reap the benefits of the blessing least often, thus requiring the protections prescribed in last week’s parashah.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What blessings can we observe today that are a result of people walking in God’s ways? 2. What curses are we facing because of people choosing not to do so?

Bibliography: Eskenazi, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (URJ, 2008); Green, These Are the Words, 2nd Edition (Jewish Lights, 2012); Plaut and Stein, eds., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (URJ, 2006).

This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh Kingsville (Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and Bunurong Country), Australia.

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