Ki Tavo: Forty years to understand

Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I led you through the wilderness forty years – the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet; you had no bread to eat and no wine or other intoxicant to drink — that you might know that I the Lord am your God. (Devarim 29:3-5)

No instant insights
despite the wonders on the way.

Forty years from revelation
to understanding.

Forty years to pare the husk
and find the heart within.

In a talk* that he gave at the Se’udah Shelishit (third Sabbath meal) on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo in 1996,, Rabbi Yehudah Amital (1924 – 2010) cites the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 5b) which recalls the incident in which the people grumbled against God and Moses that there was no bread and water in the wilderness and that they had come to loathe the miserable food… (B’midbar 21:5). Yet the Gemara says that Moses only reminds the Israelites of this incident some forty years later. We read there “As it is said, ‘And I have led you forty years in the wilderness . . . but the Lord did not give you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear, until today.’ [the quotation in the Gemara actually changes the order of the verses cf the Torah’s text itself as cited above)]. Said Raba: From this you can learn that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master.” Rav Amital wonders what the Gemara is teaching us. He asks, “Does it really take four decades to learn a lesson?”
In order to address this, he brings the Talmudic analogy (Chagiga 15a) of toch – the meaning, value, or truth that lies at the heart or core of a system, and its kelipah – the shell or husk that surrounds it, and which can take many forms. Rav Amital notes that Chasidic thought differentiates between “a kelipah of desire, which one may penetrate to reveal the truth, and a kelipah of falsehood, which has no toch at its core. In such a case, he says, the shell is truly empty.”
Rabbi Amital, speaking twenty years ago, addresses a challenge no less pressing today, which he describes as a new culture of falsehood. He says, “Now it is the mantra of the West which rules, that image is everything, that only kelipah counts. Within this culture of hidden lies, falsehood is attractively packaged and marketed. Whether it is commercial advertisement or political propaganda, modern media present us with enchanting and beautiful externals, the connection between them and the internal value of the product or person being negligible.  There are even those who attempt to sell the toch of Judaism in the same way, by exhibiting all of its ostensibly desirable and appealing elements, instead of delving into its content and depth.”
Rav Amital brings a strange story from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Chagigah 2:2) which tells of two righteous men, one of whom dies and whose spirit then appears to his friend and describes the afterlife. Among other things, he tells him of a woman there, who has the bizarre name of Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves, in whose ear the hinge of the gate of Gehinom [hell] revolves! The friend learns that she earned this punishment because of her false piety – she fasted a lot and took great pains to publicize it, or, according to another opinion, she exaggerated it.  However, the deceased informant adds that Miriam will be replaced in her uncomfortable position by none other than Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who was the Nasi – the President of the Sanhedrin,** who when he dies, will take her place! The amazed friend wonders what could have been the sin of the Nasi? He learns that prior to becoming Nasi, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach undertook to use his position to eradicate sorcery, but did not kept his resolution once he reached office. The friend immediately visits R’ Shimon ben Shetach, who resolves to fulfill his promise, but is awestruck, because he hadn’t ever actually spoken of his intention aloud, having only committed in his own heart to do so!
Rav Amital asks what we learn from this passage. He teaches that Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves’ curious name gives us the clue. He notes the marked difference between the onion and other vegetables: while other vegetables have a kelipah and a toch, the onion has only kelipah; after each layer of peel is shed, there is another layer of peel. The onion thus symbolises things which have only an exterior, but no core. This passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi comes to denounce that which has no inner truth or value, that which merely consists of a possibly attractive but actually empty husk. Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves puts on a show of fasting, appearing to be pious, but really seeks public approbation. R’ Shimon ben Shetach lets himself believe that he wants the high office of Nasi in order to eradicate paganism, but he does not fulfill the promise, even though he made it only to himself.
Rav Amital adds, “Judaism demands that, just as one should not write a check unless he has funds to cover it in the bank, one must also have “coverage” for all his assertions, promises and even intentions. The Torah despises facades and hypocrisy.  We must inspect our actions, making sure that they validate our words and thoughts…”
He concludes, “With this in mind, we can return to the Gemara in Avodah Zarah cited above. The template of Moses in the desert shows us that it is insufficient to memorize and declaim the rabbi’s words verbatim, being satisfied with the way they appear at first glance, on a kelipah level. Instead, we must understand them well and plumb their depths, exposing the toch.  This requires a great deal of time, but it is the only way to ensure that at our core, we are people of truth.”

After the number seven, forty is the most frequently-occurring number in the Tanach, and it often seems indicative of some sort of transition or turning point (forty days of the Flood, of Moses fasting on Mount Chorev, forty days granted to Ninevah to repent, forty days of purification following the birth of a baby boy (double that amount for a baby girl); forty years was the age at which both Isaac and Esau were married, that Calev was sent to spy out the land, forty years of the Children of Israel’s sojourn in the desert,while several judges and kings ruled each for forty years.)
In the Talmud, we learn that a new level of understanding is attained at the age of forty – “ben arba’im le-binah,” (Pirkei Avot 5:26). Tradition tells us of three great Rabbis – Hillel, Yochanan ben Zakkai and Akiva who embarked upon their rabbinical studies when they were forty years old.
Forty is also paralleled in the period between the first day of Elul, when we begin to blow the Shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashana, until Yom Kippur, the end of the period of repentance. These 40 days are considered a meaningful period for striving to reach a deeper level of understanding of what is required of us.

*Rav Amital’s talk was summarized by Matan Glidai and translated by Yoseif Bloch.
**The Great Sanhedrin, similar to a Supreme Court, was made up of a Nasi (President), who functioned as head or representing president, but was not a member of the court, an Av Beit Din (the chief of the court), and sixty-nine general members.

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, 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.

Ki Tavo: First Fruits

When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take from every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name…You shall go to the priest…and say to him, “I acknowledge today, before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.”
The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God.
You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” You shall leave it before the Lord your God and bow low before the Lord your God. And you shall rejoice, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, in all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household. (Devarim 26:1-11)

We descend to the field to seek the first cluster,
the promise of harvest blessed by the Source.

We enter before You, basket borne shoulder-high
as once we bore dough when we hastened from Egypt.

We remember how, homeless and trapped in tight straits,
we called out to You and You answered our cry.

Your arm reaching out, and Your powerful hand
wrought wonders and miracles, bringing us home.

We set down the hamper and open our hearts
to the Levite, the stranger, the poor and bereft.

The sparks that we gathered and bore in the basket,
tendered like first fruits, soar back to the Source.

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a description of one of the most beautiful ceremonies of Temple times: the bringing of the “bikurim – the first fruits.” The rite is first mentioned briefly in Sefer Shemot (23:19 and 34:26) but in Ki Tavo, it is described much more fully. The Mishna in Masechet Bikurim, portrays the festive observance of this mitzva in Temple times. The description starts with the farmer noticing the first cluster of grapes or figs, marking it with a band and declaring, “These shall be for first fruits…” and concludes when he leaves the Temple having brought his offering. The Rambam, in his Laws of First Fruits, adds further details. One of these is that the first fruits can be conveyed in any manner, but once the Temple Mount is reached, the presenter himself must carry the basket on his shoulder, even if he is the king. In his book, Passages:Text and Transformation in the Parasha, Rabbi Michael Hattin addresses the significance of carrying on the shoulder. He brings other biblical examples: Rebekka at the well; the Levites carrying the holy vessels of the Mishkan during the wandering in the wilderness; and most strikingly, the children of Israel carrying their dough and their kneading troughs, wrapped in their garments when they hastily departed Egypt. Rabbi Hattin suggests that when carrying on the shoulder is described in the Torah, it is associated with a situation in which the load must be borne aloft until a suitable resting place is found. He says, “In the context of the first fruits, then, the significance of carrying the basket is not simply to convey it from one’s field to the Temple, but to actually relive the existential journey from homelessness to settlement! We must carry the bikurim because we are symbolically re-experiencing the dispossession of our ancestors who had no land. We bear the basket on our shoulder because we are recalling their condition of anxious destitution, of having meager possessions and nowhere to rest them.” Rabbi Hattin further points out that the word “tenneh – basket” appears only four times in the Tanach, all of them in this parasha, as opposed to the more common word, “sal” which occurs fifteen times. He says tenneh is etymologically related to the Aramaic word for burden or load.
Much has been written about the declaration which each person bringing the bikurim is obligated to make. This declaration, the “mikra bikurim – the declaration made over first fruits,” includes the section which begins, “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” and has become one of the best known passages in the Torah because, although originally said on Shavuot, which is “Chag HaBikurim – the Festival of First Fruits,” in post-biblical times it became a central element of the Haggadah on Seder night. The mikra bikurim is essentially an encapsulation of the nation’s history, and each person is enjoined to remember the affliction of slavery and disenfranchisement, and then to rejoice in the liberation by God and the gift of the land of Israel. The final part of the declaration mentions enjoying the God-given bounty with the stranger and the Levite.
Rabbi David Bigman, in his book, The Fire and the Cloud, Contemporary Readings on the Weekly Torah Reading (actually on Parashat Ki Tetzei) compares the two proclamations which the farmer is to make: the mikra bikurim; and the “vidui ma’asrot – the confession of tithes.” (Devarim 26:12-13). The former is from a man standing before his God, while the latter is chiefly concerned with the fulfillment of one’s obligations towards society’s weaker members – the stranger, the orphan, the widow. Rav Bigman says, “The process begins with the farmer standing before God, and ends with him standing before his fellow beings. It seems that the entire process leads up to the moment when one person comes out of himself toward another…Mikra bikurim leads to vidui ma’asrot, which forms the heart of the spiritual journey.”
In his book, Orchard of Delights, The Ohr Chadash Torah Commentary, Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, quoting Rashi who describes a man going down into his field and spotting the first fruits of that year, says that on a mystical level, this refers to a person’s soul descending to enter a physical body in order to fulfill his purpose, declaring, “This is the first fruits.” Rabbi Trugman comments that this is a fundamental Chassidic concept, that the soul must descend in order to ascend. Taking the first fruits up to the Temple represents the elevation of the physical world. He adds, “The Ba’al Shem Tov compares gathering and preparing the first fruits with redeeming sparks of holiness scattered throughout reality as a result of the breaking of the vessels. Furthermore, he explains that bringing the sparks up to Jerusalem symbolizes returning the sparks to their Divine source.” Rabbi Trugman draws a parallel between the farmer’s declaration describing exile and redemption, with the scattering and redemption of the holy sparks in Kabbalistic thought.