Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Walk Article-Ki Tavo


Ki Tavo-5774

Rabbi David Walk


            As a teacher, I'm very concerned with the issue of which senses people utilize to acquire information and knowledge.  Babies get as much information from their sense of touch as from their other senses combined.  That's why they touch and pick up everything they can reach.  Thank God by time they get to school they don't need to touch everything.  Then there's the taste stage, when everything goes into the mouth.  Ugh!  As we grow older we tend to shift our data gathering resources towards sight and sound, eyes and ears.  I try to both say and write down the material I think is most important, because some students are visual learners and others are auditory learners.  But there's so much more to this issue.  Just because I've seen something or heard something doesn't mean that I've learned it.  How come some messages or billboards catch my attention and I remember them later, and others I've not even noticed?  If I could answer that question definitively, I could make some money on Madison Avenue.  Alternatively, it may have nothing to do with the material.  I pay attention to things I like and ignore the other stuff.  This issue fascinated the Sfat Emet in this week's Torah reading, and he came to a number of intriguing conclusions.

            Here's the verse which engrossed the Gerrer Rebbe:  Yet until this day, the Lord hasn't given you a heart that understands, eyes that perceive, and ears that discern (Deuteronomy 23:3).  The Sforno (1487-1550) explains this verse to mean that even though God tried to give the Jewish people this level of information through all the signs and wonders, the Jews just couldn't quite absorb it, because of their bitterness.  I might have said distractions instead of bitterness, but I think we agree that worldly issues interrupted the educational process.  The Ramban (1194-1270) says it a little bit differently.  He comments that God complains that the Jews don't understand the divine message because of their stubbornness, and his proof is that they have tested God ten times.  So, the normative understanding of the verse is that the Jews have not imbibed the message.

            However, the Sfat Emet (1847-1905) takes a totally different tack.  The Rebbe assumes that the Jews did understand God's Torah.  After all, at Mount Sinai they were face to face with God, and the tradition is that there were no blind or deaf participants at Sinai.  So, the verse must mean something totally different.  The Rebbe addresses this problem a number of times and gives a number of different answers. I'd like to report on two of them.

In 1874 the Rebbe suggested that the Jews really did have the de'ah (knowledge), and the verse doesn't say that they didn't know what God wanted to them know.  The verse says that they didn't have the physical means of gathering this data.  The heart, eyes and ears weren't attuned to the right wave length.  Remember, he tells us that at Mt. Sinai the Jews were, for the moment, ethereal beings without physical bodies.  They temporarily transcended our earthly limitations.  But now as they enter Israel they must get their physical sensors in tune to the message because the acts of nation building will require all the body's limbs and parts.  The Rebbe explains that the Land of Israel and the Holy Temple were for the purpose of focusing our physical selves on spiritual pursuits.  So, what do we do today in exile and bereft of Temple?  We must use our Torah study to concentrate our power towards a tikun (repair) of our physical attributes and a dedication to spirituality.  Force the heart, eyes and ears to partner in this holy effort.

In 1871, the Rebbe was bothered by the same question, but took a different approach.  He again insists that the Jews did understand the message at Sinai, however they still lacked the will and the desire to be immersed in the search for God in this world.  Their hearing and sight were not yet dedicated to discovering the hidden essence of God concealed in every earthly item, both large and small.  At Sinai there was a general revealing of God and the Torah.  The veil was removed.  But now we must seek and discern the spiritual reality with inner senses because the fa├žade of the physical world screens the Divine and the holy.  The verse means that we can't just look at something and see its role in God's plan.  We wish that our senses could just inform us of the Divine purpose in everything around us, but that's not what eyes and ears do.  They just report the superficial sights and sounds.  So, when the verse says that the Jews didn't get the senses to perceive God until today, that means that every day we can focus our senses to gathering evidence of God's presence all around us.

However, there's a problem.  We count the senses as sight, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting.  Which one is aligned with the heart?  What is heart doing in our verse?  Here the Rebbe quotes one of the many verses which call the heart leivov, with the letter veit doubled.  This is because the heart controls our connection to either the yetzer hara or yetzer hatov our good and bad natures.  In other words, we're being told that we can perceive the holy and the spiritual around us if we use our positive nature to look for it.  Just like two people are riding together in a car, and one sees amazing landscape and the other fiddles with electronic devices missing all the beauty and the point of the trip.  It's up to us, and how our heart directs our senses. 

As we quickly approach the annual Days of Awe, it behooves us to adjust our sensors to the spiritual side of life and the world around us.  The world abounds with holy attractions.  We must pilot our sensors to notice them.  Our mobile devices pick up transmissions from the air around us; it's time that we monitor the holy communications directed our way.