The "Admonition" Revisited

  • Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT KI TAVO

 

The 'Admonition' Revisited

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

Introduction

 

Parashat Ki Tavo introduces the final section of the Book of Devarim.  Moshe has completed his review and restatement of the mitzvot of the Torah, and his concluding remarks concern the people's formal acceptance of the Torah's commands in a Covenantal Ceremony. "Moshe, the Kohanim and Leviim addressed all of Israel, stating: 'Be attentive and listen, Israel, for on this day you have become a people to God your Lord.  Hearken to the voice of God your Lord, perform His commands and decrees that I enjoin upon you this day'" (Devarim 27:9-10).

 

What follows is a description of the assembly to be convened immediately after the people cross the River Jordan and enter the land.  There they are to gather in the valley of Shechem located between the summits of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, listen attentively as the Leviim loudly proclaim the list of so-called 'Blessings' and 'Curses,' and acknowledge their assent by declaring 'amen!'.  This brief and succinct inventory, in the main detailing infractions concerning idolatry, veiled breaches of trust, and sexual immorality, is followed by a concise passage spelling out the national blessings to be expected and enjoyed if the people of Israel observe the Torah.  A much lengthier section describing the dire consequences that will befall the people of Israel if they fail to hearken to the Torah's words, follows this in turn (Devarim 29:1-69).  In traditional sources, this section is known as the 'Tokhecha' or 'Admonition,' and tends to be publicly read as part of the Shabbat synagogue service with much foreboding and unease.

 

The 'Admonition' of Parashat Bechukotai

 

Actually, this structure of blessings and curses pronounced to the people of Israel as a nation, with an emphasis on the ominous results of non-observance, also constitutes the conclusion of the Book of Vayikra/Leviticus, Parashat Bechukotai (Vayikra 26:3-47).  There, after Moshe had finished the transmission of the commands that he had received from God at Sinai, the Torah spells out in unsettling terms the retribution that will be visited upon the people of Israel if they fail to live up to their destiny.  Externally, the two sections are quite similar.  In both cases, the passage in question is presented as a conclusion to a lengthy and detailed collection of mitzvot, is addressed to the nation as a whole as a formal covenant, and utilizes graphic terms and images to impress upon the people the necessity of adherence. 

 

Naturally, the similarities of setting, form, and theme invite us to compare the two passages, and this the commentaries do with thoroughness.  This week, we shall consider the words of the Ramban, the great 13th century Spanish commentator.  Although we have already noted many similarities between the passages, the Ramban takes particular interest in pointing out both the glaring as well as the more subtle differences.  As a result of these differences and with the benefit of more than one thousand years of hindsight, the Ramban posits that the two passages actually refer to two completely different historical periods.  The Ramban's comments certainly provide much insight into this week's reading, but his more thorough treatment of the subject is actually to be found on the Parasha of Bechukotai, from which we shall quote as necessary.  Readers are recommended to follow along in their own text of the Chumash since the relevant Scriptural passages are quite lengthy.

 

Parashat Bechukotai – Key Features

 

The 'Admonition' as spelled out in Parashat Bechukotai is almost fifty verses long.  It begins with a brief paragraph outlining the national blessings to be experienced "If you follow My decrees and observe My commandments to perform them" (Vayikra 26:3). These include abundant rainfall, bountiful harvests, peace and security, triumph over enemies, and the overarching experience of God's presence, especially at His sanctuary.  This in turn is followed by a menacing description of calamities that will befall the people if they abrogate the Torah, including sickness, disease, oppression by enemies, draught, famine, attack by beasts, conquest, destruction of the Sanctuary, banishment, dispersion, and terrible uncertainty in the lands of their exile.

 

 

A) Climactic Progression

 

Significantly, the structure of the section is climactic, for it describes a progression of events of increasing severity, culminating in the destruction of the state, the devastation of the Temple, and the exile of the people to far-off lands.  Each section is introduced with a similar refrain: "If you still refuse to hearken to Me, then…," implying the possibility of arresting the process by again embracing the Torah's commands.  Significantly, the passage doesn't only speak in generalities concerning non-observance, but spells out two particular transgressions.  The first of these is idolatry – "I will demolish your high places and destroy your sun images.  Your corpses will be strewn upon your abominable idols, and I will detest you!" (Vayikra 26:30).  The second is the failure to observe the 'Sabbatical Year,' the seventh year of the agricultural cycle during which most farming activities are curtailed – "…while you are in the lands of your enemies, the land will have its Sabbaths.  In desolation, it will have the Sabbaths that it did not have while you were in it" (Vayikra 26:34-35).

 

 

B) First Person Singular Narration

 

It must be pointed out that the entire section is phrased in the first person singular form, for although Moshe conveys the 'Admonition' to the people, it is God who is the Speaker: "If you do not listen to ME…I will bring the sword upon you…I will make the land desolate…I will bring fear into your hearts…" Of course, the dominant message of the section would not have been substantially different had it been presented in third person.  Nevertheless, the use of the first person implies an intimacy and a directness that would have been otherwise lacking: "If you do not listen to God…He will bring the sword upon you…He will make the land desolate…He will bring fear into your hearts."

 

 

C) Repentance and Resolution

 

Remarkably, the section concludes on a higher note, for it holds out the promise of repentance and restoration: "They shall declare their transgression and that of their ancestors who trespassed against Me…and I shall remember the covenant that I made with Yaakov, Yitzchak and Avraham, and I shall remember the land…Thus, even when they are in the lands of their enemies, I shall not reject them nor repulse them entirely to annihilate them, to abrogate My covenant with them, for I am God their Lord.  I shall remember the earlier covenant for which I took them out of the land of Egypt for all of the nations to see, in order to be their Lord, I am God" (Vayikra 26:40-46).  Thus, the people of Israel will return to God and He will restore their fortunes, for even though they rejected His Torah, God NEVER abolished His covenant with them.  The overall effect of the 'Admonition' in the Book of Vayikra is to foster anxiety and dread that is nevertheless tinged with hope.  By describing the effects of the people's initial renunciation of the commandments as necessary steps towards their eventual return to God and the land, the passage is able to provide a reassuring sense of closure and resolution.

 

Parashat Ki Tavo – Key Features

 

The 'Admonition' of Parashat Ki Tavo is almost seventy verses long.  Like its counterpart at the end of Sefer Vayikra, it begins with a section of benefits that address every aspect of personal and national life.  These include success, agricultural bounty, fertility, victory, renown, rainfall, and the promise of a continual state of triumph in all endeavors.  Again, these are followed by a lengthier section of disasters that will unfold if the people reject God's word, including illness, disease, draught, defeat in battle, stark and fierce oppression by enemies, constant failure of crops, attack by foes that precipitates acute famine and eventual dispersion among hostile nations.

 

 

A) A Downward Spiral

 

In contrast to Parashat Bechukotai, the passages here are not climactic in structure.  Rather than describing a single progression of famine, conquest and exile, with a possibility of reversal of fortunes in between each one, the text in Ki Tavo rather describes a number of repetitive cycles that spiral inexorably downwards.  Although there are no divisions in the text itself, it is possible to break up the passage into a number of parts based upon content.  Thus, the first section speaks of sickness, draught and defeat before one's enemies.  The second speaks of being struck with the terrible 'boils of Egypt', and then experiencing all manner of oppression at the hands of foreign powers that seize possessions, property, loved ones, and the harvest.  The third section again contains a reference to 'evil boils' and goes on to describe the exile of people and king to a far-off land.  The fourth describes consecutive crop failures, children taken captive, economic depression and foreign domination.  It is only the fifth section that appears to be predicated upon a model of progression, for it spells out the arrival of a bitter foe from 'far-off, the edges of the earth', an enemy who speaks a foreign language that is unknown to the people.  That foe will lay siege to all of their cities, and the resulting famine will be so severe that parents will mercilessly consume their own children.  The defeated Jews will be scattered among all of the nations 'from one end of the heavens to the other', and will be ignominiously returned by sea as captive slaves to Egypt, there to be sold to the surrounding peoples.

 

 

B) Third Person and Lack of Specificity

 

The 'Admonition' of Ki Tavo is composed in third person, for it describes God as the source of the disasters: "God will visit the curse upon you…God will take you and your king… God will scatter you among all of the nations…"  In contrast to Bechukotai, the use of the third person fosters a sense of distance, of a God who is far way and inaccessible, of a God who is remote.  In another departure from the passage in Vayikra, our 'Admonition' fails to spell out any specific transgressions that may be regarded as the cause of the downfall, and limits itself to a very general pronouncement: "This is because you did not serve God your Lord with joy and gladness of heart, although you had all."

 

 

C) The Despair of Exile

 

Most disturbingly, the passage ends with no resolution, for its final words are: "Your life will be suspended before you, for you shall be fearful night and day and shall have no stability.  In the morning you will say 'if only it were evening!', and in the evening you shall say 'if only it were morning!', because of the fear in your heart and because of the sight before your eyes.  God will return you to Egypt in barges, along the route concerning which I had said that you would never see it again, and there you shall sell yourselves as slaves to your enemies, but not shall want to buy."  The promise of a brighter future, of an opportunity for renewal, of an eventual rehabilitation of fortunes and restoration to the land is entirely absent from the passage.

 

The Interpretation of the Ramban – Bechukotai

 

Based upon many of the comparisons and contrasts outlined above, the Ramban arrives at a startling conclusion.  He suggests that the two separate sections in fact address two different historical events that are recounted chronologically: the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians some 2500 years ago, and the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans about 500 years later.

 

Carefully reading the account of the 'Tokhecha' in Bechukotai, Ramban singles out the two elements of exile and redemption.  As the passage had suggested, the first exile was a function of both idolatrous conduct and gross immorality, two causes singled out for particular censure in the prophetic writings of the times.  It was linked to a failure to observe the Sabbatical Years, as in fact Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah, the First Temple prophet of doom, intimated: "The remnant from the sword was exiled to Babylon…until the fulfillment of God's word to the prophet Yirmiyahu that the land would enjoy its Sabbaths, resting during its desolation until the completion of seventy years" (Divrei Ha-yamim/Chronicles 2:36:20-21).  Conversely, the redemption foretold in Bechukotai spoke of a remembrance of the covenant and a return, but did not mention a complete ingathering of exiles or the founding of an ideal state.  Indeed, a remnant did return from Babylon, "few in number and representing only some of the tribes, indigent and captive to the Persian kings who gave their consent…" (Ramban, commentary to Vayikra 26:16). 

 

Of course, the Ramban's interpretation is helpful in explaining other features.  The 'Admonition' in Bechukotai was composed as a climactic progression, with a refrain that raised the possibility of arresting the process.  In fact, it is well documented in the writing of Yirmiyahu that almost until the Babylonian war machines were breaking down the gates of Jerusalem, there were ample opportunities to avert the disaster.  The people had been told to mend their evil ways, but they refused.  Zedekiah, the final Judean King, had been advised by Yirmiyahu not to court invasion by withholding tribute, but he refused.

 

The immediacy of God's presence, the hallmark of the First Temple period, was signified in the text by the use of the first person, and by the recurring references to His Sanctuary.  A world steeped in idolatry at least understood the importance of relating to the gods, as human hearts of the time fumbled in ignorance and darkness for an experience of the divine.  In parallel fashion, the potential to apprehend the God of Israel, the True Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, was correspondingly higher, and the destruction of His Temple was thus understood to signal the end of His overt involvement in the world of men.

 

The Ramban's Interpretation – Ki Tavo

 

"The covenant in the Book of Devarim, however, refers to our present state of exile and our eventual redemption from it.  Here, the Torah does not allude to its coming to an end, but only makes the matter contingent upon repentance.  The 'Admonition' in Ki Tavo makes no mention of idolatry whatsoever, for as we know, during the period of the Second Temple, the people occupied themselves with Torah and good deeds, but were guilty of causeless hatred...Here, the passage says that 'God will bring upon you a nation from afar, from the ends of the earth, who will soar like the eagle', and indeed the Romans arrived, speaking a language that we did not understand…The verses state that 'God will scatter you among the nations from one end of the heavens to the other', and indeed in our present exile, we are dispersed across the world…Just as the passages suggest, the Romans ruled over our land …and placed upon us heavy taxation…" (Ramban, commentary to Vayikra 26:16). 

 

Addressing our Parasha in Ki Tavo, the Ramban adds: "The verse states that 'God will bring upon you a nation from afar', for Vespasian and Titus his son arrived with many troops and captured all of the fortified cities.  Eventually, they besieged Jerusalem and breached its walls, so that only the Temple Mount remained beyond their grasp.  Indeed, the famine was so acute, that cannibalism broke out, until the city was completely captured and the Jews were driven far away from their land…" (commentary to Devarim 28:42).

 

Thus, the references to a far-off conqueror whose language was unknown but who would soar like the eagle, were an apt description of Imperial Rome.  Located over the western horizon of the 'Great Sea' (the Mediterranean), Rome must have initially seemed very far away, especially to a people for whom Latin was incomprehensible.  But the predatory eagle, proudly borne aloft on the standards of the Roman legions, eventually landed in the state of Judea, when Pompey was invited to mediate in an internal dynastic struggle between the two Hasmonean brothers, Yochanan Hyrcanus, and Yehuda Aristobulus, who both vied for the throne of Judea.  Intervene he did, soon besieging the walls of Jerusalem in 63 BCE and bringing the Jewish state under Roman domination until the Second Temple's destruction in 70 CE.  The inexorableness of exile that seems to color the 'Admonition' in Ki Tavo can directly be traced to the partisanship, strife, and infighting that was a permanent feature of the Judean landscape from the time of Pompey's infamous arrival, until the final embers of the burned Temple went out some 130 years later.

 

In contrast to our reading, however, the Ramban claims that the 'Admonition' in Ki Tavo DOES conclude joyously, for the tidings of redemption so glaringly and devastatingly missing from its verses are to be found in next week's reading: "When all of these things come to pass, the blessing and the curse…God will return your captivity…even from the edges of the heavens…and you shall be wealthier and more numerous than your ancestors ever were…" (Devarim 30:1-10).  This is a pledge, explains the Ramban, "addressed to the whole people of Israel.  Furthermore, God promises to eradicate the enemies who had exiled us.  The verse states that 'God will put these curses upon your enemies and hateful foes who hounded you', and the double allusion to 'enemies and hateful foes' is a reference to the two other religions who have always pursued us.  Thus, these words provide an assurance of the future redemption more reliable than even the eschatological visions of the Book of Daniel" (Ramban, commentary to Vayikra 26:16).

 

Conclusion

 

This week, we carefully compared the two passages of 'Admonition' in the Torah, and considered the explanation of the Ramban who assigned them to different historical events.  In both cases, the failure of the Jewish people to live up to their national destiny was the cause of their downfall.  At the same time, the unfolding narratives implied a providential foreknowledge of the events that almost gave the impression of dictating the outcome.  This seeming inevitability doesn't, however, necessarily preclude human initiative and choice, but only confirms what omniscient God already knows.  As we continue to live out the very process of ingathering and redemption that Ramban claimed was really the disconnected conclusion of the 'Tokhecha' of Ki Tavo, let us hope and pray that we may merit to experience its final, triumphant conclusion: "God will grant you plenty of increase in all of your endeavors, your children, your animals, and your produce for the good.  God will again rejoice over you for the good, just as He rejoiced over your ancestors.  For you will hearken to the voice of God your Lord, to observe His commandments and decrees that are recorded in this Book of the Torah, for you will return to God your Lord with all of your heart and with all of your soul."

 

Shabbat Shalom