Between Two Mountains: Ki Tavo 2015

It can be difficult to connect with the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, as it is dominated by the Tochecha, the lengthy list of harrowing curses that Israel will receive if it does not follow God’s commandments. The Tochecha is disturbing to read and imagine. Yet even a frank discussion of the meaning of blessings and curses can yield bring some intriguing lessons. One such moment occurs with a shorter set of curses the Israelites are instructed to hear about after they enter the Promised Land. 

Here is a text from this week’s Torah portion, with commentaries and topics for you to discuss: 

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Text: “After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people of Israel. …” (Deuteronomy 27:12-14)

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Commentary #1: The ritual prescription of Numbers 5:11-31 [the description of the Sotah] does not contain many emphatic messages. However, there is one that stands out: at the end of the oath administered by the priest, the suspected woman is to respond “Amen! Amen!” (Numbers 5:22). This repeated response is rather unusual. In the list of the 12 curses found in Deuteronomy 27:11-26, the people reply to each curse with a single “amen”. – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Questions: Even though the word “Amen” does not appear much in the Torah, it is a central word in our religious life today. What do you think about when you say “Amen” after hearing a blessing? Are there occasions in Jewish ritual when you might refuse to say “Amen”? Does the word “Amen” simply indicate your agreement with something you’ve just heard, or does it mean something more to you?

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Commentary #2: The tribes who ascended Mount Gerizim were all sons of Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s primary wives. The descendants of his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, stood on Mount Eval. Nevertheless, to balance the number of tribes on each peak, Reuven and Zebulun, the eldest and youngest of Leah’s sons, joined [those on Mount Eval]. – Ibn Ezra

Questions: Ibn Ezra’s observation shows that the segregation between the factions of Jacob’s family is still in full force long after Jacob’s death; the tribes that descended from Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, are ensured that they will hear blessings, as are some of the tribes descending from Rachel’s sister Leah; the curses are reserved for the tribes descending from Jacob’s concubines, as well as two of “Leah’s tribes.” Once again, there is a pecking order in Jacob’s family. Many scholars believe that dysfunction and favoritism are a hallmark of biblical families in which a man is married to more than one woman at once; hence, the text subtly discourages polygamy, which was legal during biblical times. Does this theory ring true? Does it seem strange that the Bible might mock practices it permits?

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Commentary #3: On his way to pray in Jerusalem, Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yosi was passing that notorious Mount [Gerizim] when a Samaritan saw him and asked: Master, where are you going? Rabbi Ishmael: I am going up to pray in Jerusalem. The Samaritan: Would it not be better for you to pray at this mountain, upon which a blessing was pronounced, than at that dunghill? – Genesis Rabbah

Questions: This text hearkens back to a time shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in which the Romans left the city in ruins. The Samaritan in this excerpt wonders why the Jerusalem of that time would be preferable to a place like Mount Gerizim, in which blessings had been uttered. Which location would you choose to pray in? To what extent should we honor the history of a legendary location, even if that location is in terrible straits today? Would you prefer to travel to, say, Athens – a city with a rich heritage located in a country filled with turmoil – rather than a place in better condition but with a less significant history?

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Emanu-El Happenings: Tomorrow night, our synagogue’s Selihot program will begin with Havdallah at 8:30pm, concluding with a brief Selihot service that will conclude at 10:00pm. Selihot kicks off the High Holy Day season by turning our minds and hearts to repentance and self-evaluation. So it will be appropriate that, during the heart of the program, we will discuss the concept of ethical wills. I’ll bring examples of ethical wills and encourage attendees to begin writing their own. Hope you’ll join us.

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The Big Inning at the End: No matter how much we hope that the Jewish people see themselves as a singular, united people, even the Torah indicated that the Israelites were very much defined by their respective “teams”; in the case of this week’s portion, the teams are the 12 tribes. Similarly, many baseball fans follow their favorite team to the exclusion of all else. I’m an anomaly in this respect; I have been a Chicago Cubs fan since I was seven, but I am also a fan of baseball in general. (This comes in handy during October, when I can root for a different team each year in the World Series, since the Cubs never get that far.)

What’s it like to be a Cubs fan? Perhaps it was described best by the late Steve Goodman, a folk singer who wrote “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request.” Here is the song’s chorus:

Do they still play the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around?

When the snow melts away, to the Cubbies still play in their ivy-covered burial ground? 

When I was a boy, they were my pride and joy, but now they only bring fatigue

To the home of the brave, the land of the free, and the doormat of the National League.

But the Cubs might actually make the playoffs this year … so maybe Goodman’s words won’t apply anymore …

Shabbat Shalom!