The "Admonition" Revisited
INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
PARASHAT KI TAVO
The 'Admonition' Revisited
By Rav Michael Hattin
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The immediacy of God's presence, the hallmark of the
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
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
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
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
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."