Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walk Article


Ki Tavo-5771

Rabbi David Walk


            This week's parsha is very dramatic, maybe even melodramatic.  The Torah reading begins with the ceremony of bringing the first fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  This requires not only the solemn presenting of the produce to the Cohen before the altar, but also the stirring declaration of our historical connection to the Land of Israel.  This material is so moving that it has become the central text for the Passover Hagadah.  If that staged service isn't theatrical enough for you, later in the reading there is an even more impressive rite described.  After the Jews will have entered the Holy Land they are commanded to assemble on the two hilltops overlooking Shechem.  Six tribes are to stand on each hillside and the Cohanim will stand in the valley below.  One hill, Mount Gerizim, is verdant and lovely, while the other, Mount Ebal, is bleak and barren.  In this powerful setting the Jews will receive a daunting list of blessings and curses.  It's this forbidding ceremony which I'd like to discuss this week.

            The section begins this way:  When you cross the Jordan, the following shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And the following shall stand upon Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naftali (Deuteronomy 27:12-13).  The famous commentary the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550-1619) points out that the language is very different for the blessing and the curse.  The blessing derives from a positive action to bless the nation.  However, the curse just seems to happen they stand there and the curse just sort of occurs, no verb.  Rabbi Luntschitz informs us that God does no negative actions towards us, as the verse in Lamentations states:  from on High there comes no evil (3:38).  So, from where does the bad stuff derive?  It appears through hester panim, the concealing of the Divine Face.  When God is absent the result is very bad, and we call it curse.

            This concept is reinforced in the actual list of specific curses.  There are eleven sins listed which the assembled community must verbally acknowledge as spiritually debilitating.  There is much discussion over the choice of sins, moving landmarks, sexual impropriety, making idols, taking bribes, hitting in secret.  I don't want to focus on the list but the point they seem to share in common is that they are all performed in private.  In this article, I'm more interested in a point noticed by the Kli Yakar.  There are eleven of these sins listed.  What is the significance of the number eleven?  This is not a common number in Jewish tradition.  According to the Kli Yakar, this number is based upon the numerical value of the last two letters of God's four letter name, which we never pronounce.  Those letters are vav, equal to six, and hey, equal to five.  I'd like to suggest that, perhaps, by this he means that those letters make a deficient name of God.   The first two letters of that name (yod and hey) make up a name by themselves, but these don't.  Also, perhaps, the very number eleven stands for deficiency.  Many of our lists in Judaism are based upon the number twelve, like the tribes, months and blessings in Shmoneh Esreh.  A list containing eleven elements is lacking.

            It is well known (well, maybe not that well known) that thirteen is a special number because it adds to the normal twelve member lists to make up for some shortcoming.  This happens with months during a leap year, to tribes when we count the sons of Yosef, and to the blessings of the Shmoneh Esreh prayer, when a thirteenth blessing was added about 100 CE.  That's why we chant the Thirteen Attributes of God to beg that our inadequacies be made full again.  So, if one more than the norm of twelve means make up and repair, then one less means a deficit, a paucity, a lacking (Thank God for the thesaurus).  The symbolism, I think is powerful.  Curses mean that something is missing, whether it's in our performance or refers to God's Divine presence. 

            This idea is very important, especially at this time of year.  As we prepare for the High Holidays, our annual Days of Awe, we must be cognizant of the greatest spiritual threat.  It's neglect.  Most of us are not bad people.  We don't go around doing bad things on purpose.  Those kinds of villains are rare, except in movies.  Most of our sins result from lack of care and concern to do the right thing.  More sins are committed through somnolence than through vehemence.  I know people say that the Devil is in the details, but I think that the Devil is in apathy.  So, what is our job during these days leading up to the Days of Judgment?  To become more aware of those around us and how we treat them, and to think carefully about our actions.  The two most famous customs of this Hebrew month of Elul reinforce this idea.  Getting up early to recite the penitential prayers of Slichot represents a more aggressive awareness of our actions.  And, of course, the blowing of the Shofar is described as a wake-up call, according to Maimonides, it is a call to stop sleepwalking through life. 

            But ultimately the most important message is to Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near (Isaiah 55:6).  We must use this opportunity provided by this season to establish a closeness to God, which may have lapsed during the rest of our busy year.  Remember, the greatest spiritual negative is distance from God.  How does God become distant?  God's proximity is in direct relationship to our seeking the Divine.  The greatest curse is the absence of God in our lives, and that comes from our neglecting to get in touch.  Remember what Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) said, "God is only where you let God in."                





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