Ki Tavo: A heart to understand

If you listen, listen to the voice of the Lord your God…(Devarim 28:1)
…You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. …But the Lord did not give you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until this day. (Devarim 29:1-3

Your eyes beheld the wonders:
the sea loomed up on either side
you journeyed through unscathed.
Led by pillars of fire and cloud
you gathered at the mount.
Yet though you heard God’s teachings
you still did not believe.

But in your desert wanderings
in blinding sun and howling wind
your eyes and ears were opened, and
you learned to seek within.


On the verse, “If you listen, listen to the voice of the Lord your God…(Devarim 28:1), the Sefat Emet cites the Midrash, “Happy is the one whose listenings are to Me, hovering always at My doorways, door within door…” The Sefat Emet comments that “listenings” means that one should always be prepared to receive and listen closely to the words of God. He teaches that every thing, having been created by God’s word, contains within it a hidden light that we are enjoined to seek out. He says that inwardness goes on deeper and deeper, infinitely. And this, says the Sefat Emet, is the meaning of “My doorways”. He encourages us never to believe that we have arrived at the truth, but rather to understand that we are always standing at the threshold. He notes that the word “doorway – delet” is etymologically connected with “poverty or humility – dalut” and this is what propels us to find door after door opening for us – by always realizing how little we know so far.*

In a commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo from 2002, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/ki-tavo/5762/woods-and-elul Rabbi Marc Wolf describes the musical Into the Woods, based on several classic fairy tales and written by Stephen Sondheim. It describes the quests of its characters and how their journeys through the woods transform them. Rabbi Wolf says that through their experience of wandering through the woods, the characters grow, learn and become who they are at the end of their moral tale.
He notes, “It was not Sondheim, however, who first conceived of a wandering people. We have spent the last few months reading the story of our people’s wandering — not through the woods, but through the desert. And now, as we stand with b’nai Israel on the threshold of the Promised Land, gazing at our future, we listen as our shepherd addresses us one last time.”
He remarks that almost at the end of the parasha, Moses makes an astonishing statement. Moses says that although the people saw with their own eyes all the wonders that God had performed, yet until this day, they couldn’t see, hear or understand! Rabbi Wolf observes that “many of our commentators on this verse write, “blood and fire and pillars of smoke” do not necessarily create a relationship with God. The generation of the Exodus demonstrated that the ultimate proof of God’s existence did not promote the covenantal relationship. Despite the miracles they witnessed, they continued to defile their relationship with God with the sin of the golden calf, the slander of the spies and the uprising of Korah, to name a few.”
He cites the 16th century Italian commentator Rabbi Moses Chefetz** on this verse in his commentary on Ki Tavo, “You witnessed all those great wonders but only appreciated their full significance just now, at this time, after they had receded from view, as if you had to this point lacked sight and hearing” (Melechet Machshevet). Rabbi Chefetz teaches that the people did not grasp the miracles until they had acquired some distance from them. The desert wandering gave them some perspective that enabled them to mature as a people.
Rabbi Wolf notes, “Like Sondheim’s characters, the people of Israel needed some time in “the woods”. The true significance of the Exodus was not in the signs and wonders, but in the time it took for the people to become Israelites. Their experience in the desert served as the vehicle for transformation from a wandering mass to a People ready to live as a Nation in the Land of Israel. Moses’ statement, then, cannot be viewed as a critique, but as a compliment. B’nai Israel had made it through the desert and had matured into the people with “the mind to understand, the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
He concludes, “With Judaism, we are continually in and out of “the woods”. This month of Elul leading up to the High Holidays is time in “the woods”. Elul has traditionally been the month for introspection, a month to take our individual heshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of our soul) and examine our relationship with God. It is a period to develop as individuals to emerge like b’nai Israel from the desert with the mind, ears and eyes we need to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur…”

*From The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.
**Rabbi Moses ben Gershom Chefetz (1663 – 1711) was born in Trieste, Italy to the Gentili family, which was a prominent Italian family with members in Gorizia, Trieste, Verona, and Venice. R’ Moses Chefetz himself lived in Venice. He worked as a private tutor and was knowledgeable in philosophy, mathematics and the natural sciences. His expertise in these areas significantly impacted his books of which he authored two. The first, entitled Chanukat HaBayit, details the design and structure of the Temple and its vessels and related questions. It was printed in Venice in 1696. The second, his biblical commentary Melechet Machshevet, was published in 1710, the year prior to his death.
Rabbi Moses had a son, R’ Gershom, who, though he lived only to the age of seventeen, composed a work of rules for Hebrew poetry.

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