Parshat Ki Tavo – פרשת כי תבוא- Loving Reproof

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom Parshat Ki Tavo – פרשת כי תבוא September 1, 2018 – כא אלול תשעח Loving Reproof Parshat Ki Tavo, which features the dreaded Tokhecha (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), is read in the synagogue annually on one of the final Sabbaths of the year. Rabbi Simon ben Elazar credited Ezra with fixing the liturgical calendar such that the admonishments of Scripture are read shortly before the onset of the Days of Awe. Abaye explained the sentiment underlying the enactment: “So that the year may end along with its curses (Megillah 31b).” The Mishnah teaches that the curses of the Pentateuch must be read without breaks. One reader completes the entire passage; the reading may not be divided into multiple Aliyot (Mishnah Megillah 3:6). Abaye held that the ban on interruptions applies only to the curses found in Leviticus (26:14-43) but not to those in Deuteronomy. The Talmud justifies the differentiation by noting that the curses in Leviticus were uttered by the Almighty Himself and are formulated in plural, addressing the entire nation of Israel; in contrast, the curses in Deuteronomy were enunciated by Moses of his own accord and are in the singular. The Talmud for these reasons holds that the latter reading is less intimidating and less deserving of special treatment in the synagogue service. When Levi bar Buti mumbled the Deuteronomic Tokhecha, Rav Huna told him that it was unnecessary to recite the words in any sort of unusual way. Nonetheless, the prevalent custom codified by the Shulhan Arukh is to recite the Deuteronomic Tokhecha as one uninterrupted unit (Orach Chaim 428:6). Why must the Tokhecha be read uninterruptedly? As every contemporary synagogue-goer knows, blessings are always made before and after each Aliyah. However, Resh Lakish explained that we do not make blessings over retribution. Therefore, regarding the Aliyah in which the Tokhecha falls, it is necessary that that Aliyah begin at least one verse before the unpleasant textual material commences, and conclude at least one verse after those curses and dire predictions end (Megillah 31b). Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin cited Rabbi Levi who offered a similar answer. God promises, “He will call upon me and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble (Psalms 91:15).” Since God assures His people that He will be with them in their moments of crisis, it would be incongruous for Him to accept the blessings and praises of His people at the moment when the worst imprecations of Scripture are about to be leveled against them (Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:1). The premise of the above answer – implied by Resh Lakish and stated explicitly by Rabbi Levi – is that every Aliyah recipient recites blessings before and after his Aliyah. The weakness of their interpretation is that, according to accepted liturgical history, in Tannaitic times not every Aliyah recipient, but indeed only the first and last ones, recited the pre- and post-Torah reading blessings. Later, in the Amoraic period, these two blessings were assigned to all Aliyah recipients lest those worshippers who come and go freely during the service be unaware that blessings are recited over the public Torah reading (Megillah 21b). How, then, could the incongruity of Torah blessings and the Tokhecha be a valid explanation for why the Mishnah mandates an uninterrupted reading? The answer appears to be anachronistic on its surface. Turei Zahav suggested that even though in Tannaitic times the middle Aliyah recipients recited no blessings, still, their respective readings relied upon the blessings intoned by the first and last readers (Taz Orach Chaim 428:5). Taz’s answer is far from compelling. It is necessary to concede that the reason articulated by Resh Lakish in the late third century CE and by Rabbi Levi in the early fourth century CE was not the true historical reason for the Mishnah’s ruling, even if under later conditions it fit neatly as a supplemental reason. Rabbi Jose bar Abun rejected Rabbi Levi’s explanation and posited his own instead. In his view, the Tokhecha must be read as an uninterrupted unit because all Scriptural readings -- even individual Aliyot -- must begin and end with favorable matters (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 8). This answer is consistent with the practice of repeating, in the public readings, the penultimate verses of Isaiah, Malachi, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes so as not to end a Haftorah or Megillah on a dour note. (See my essay “The End of Eichah: Hope or No Hope,” 7/28/2017.) Supporting this view, Rabbi Aivo cited the verse: “Be not hasty to go out of His presence; do not tarry in an evil thing (Ecclesiastes 8:3).” An Aliyah break is the classic example of tarrying in the synagogue service; dead time is created as a new reader must be summoned from his seat in the pews and ascend the platform to take his place at the reader’s desk. An even longer delay is created if prayers (customarily, Mi Shebeirach) are recited by the gabbai on behalf of the previous reader and his family members. A delay of any length ought not to occur when the public reading has left off in the midst of harsh admonitions and threats of Israel’s near total devastation. The most popular explanation for the requirement of an uninterrupted Tokhecha was provided by Rabbi Hiyya bar Gamda in the name of Rav Assi. In the Babylonian Talmud, Hiyya bar Gamda’s answer is this half-verse: “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord (Proverbs 3:11).” The Midrash and the Minor Tractates cite the second half of the verse and offer a homiletic exposition. “Neither spurn thou His correction”ואל תקץ בתוכחתו is interpreted to mean “do not cut the rebuke into pieces” אל תעש את התוכחות קוצין קוצין (Deuteronomy Rabbah 4; Soferim 12:1). Breaking up the Tokhecha into several shorter readings effectively blunts the force of the threatened punishments and gives the impression that those who fail to complete the reading have disdained the admonitions. The ability to accept reproof from others is not a universal human character trait. In the B’raita Kinyan Torah, a chapter added to Ethics of the Fathers, it is taught that Torah scholarship is greater than the priesthood and the kingship because the acquisition of Torah is possible only with the presence of 48 virtues, one of which is “to love reproof” (Avot 6:5). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch asserted that the path one should choose in life is the love of rebuke, for when proper chastisement exists there is tranquility, goodness, and blessing in the world (Tamid 28a). He cited the verse: “But to them that rebuke him shall be delight, and good blessing shall come upon them (Proverbs 24:25).” Sefer Mitzvot Katan counted the circumcision of one’s heart as a positive commandment; he explained it as an obligation willingly to accept rebuke and to feel love for the person offering an accusatory assessment of one’s behavior (Semak 9). He too cited Scripture: “Reprove not a scorner lest he hate thee; reprove a wise man and he will love thee (Proverbs 9:8).” Most people do not take kindly to harsh criticism. Yet, the ability to accept rebuke and to internalize the rebuker’s message is essential to the process of repentance. Both Maimonides (Hilkhot Teshuvah 4:2) and Rabbenu Asher (Rosh Yoma 8:18) list disdain for reproof as a character flaw that closes the door on any possibility of repentance. On public fasts declared in the hopes of averting a calamity, the gathering held in the town square began with words of admonition from the communal elder and only then continued with the formal liturgy (Mishnah Ta’anit 2:1). Maimonides set forth several criteria regarding who should be tasked with delivering this important address. He should be of suitable age, a great scholar, God-fearing from his youth, and beloved by the people. The likelihood of the masses’ being receptive to a fire and brimstone sermon is related less to the speaker’s oratorical skills and more to the relationship between the speaker and his audience. Listeners will love -- or, at least, to some extent accept or acknowledge the force of -- rebuke only if they already love the messenger who delivers it. Tomorrow night, as Ashkenazi Jews prepare to recite Selichot for the first time this season, there will be pre-Selichot addresses in nearly every synagogue. In most shuls the address will be given by the local rabbi; other shuls will hire a luminary (rabbi; academic; halakhic scholar; etc.) from the Jewish speaker’s circuit. The effectiveness of those talks is largely determined by the existing relationship between the clergyman (or other speaker) and his listeners. Is the speaker accepted as a spiritual authority worthy of admonishing his listeners? But, in truth, the onus is not fully on the speaker. The individual listener must be willing not only to hear the reproof but to love it -- and to understand that through reproof a future of righteousness can be attained.