Parashat Ki Tavo/S’lichot: Twin peaks

Parashat Ki Tavo/S’lichot: Twin peaks

A trip-tik map of Ki Tavo: Once the people entered their land, they would also come into a number of obligations. They would need to thank God for the produce of the land (“bikkurim” – presented publicly in Jerusalem’s Temple on Shavuot, recited at home in the Passover Seder); to recite a declaration when bringing the tithe (ma’aser) to the Temple; to publish (on stone pillars) and proclaim blessings and curses that follow observance and disregard of the commandments; and then – in the longest single aliyah of the Torah reading year – they were told the curses that would follow communal disobedience of God’s laws (tochecha).

Interestingly enough, the blessing and curse ceremony was to take place on adjacent mountains: Mount Gerizim (the mountain for the blessings) and Mount Eival (the mountain where the stones would be set up and also the mountain for the curses). As if blessings and curses don’t come from the same place!

If we were persnickety, we could draw the conclusion (as did the early Christian Paul) that laws and regulations lead us on the path of curse rather than towards blessing. If there had been no mitzvot to disobey, we would remain sin-free! Thus, in his mind, the Jewish Torah is flawed because it presents each Jew with hundreds of opportunities to mess up our relationship with God. Not so Christianity, which under Paul’s influence removed all the mitzvot, leaving only (so he claimed) the God of Love rather than the God of stern Judgment.

But, of course, we Jews see it another way: Christians have only one chance to do things right (believe in Jesus), whereas every Jew has hundreds of opportunities, every day of our lives, to find ways of strengthening our relationship with God. These paths to righteousness mostly consist of ‘doing’ things we have been commanded. But in this week’s parasha, the majority of the commandments are accomplished by ‘saying’ rather than ‘doing.’ My mother, may her memory be a blessing, used to always tell me “listen to what I say, not to what I do.” I understand this, for how many of us ever live up to even the majority of virtues we proclaim? To live the good life, we should aspire to follow the best intentions of our teachers, not the least common denominator that they were able, finally, to accomplish. The mitzvot are certainly goal and yardstick, but even the mere desire to do good can open broader and more rarefied horizons.

Mount Sinai was the point of origin of Torah in our world. Our sages teach that the second set of tablets, the ones that actually remained with us (unbroken) were brought down on Yom Kippur. Forty days prior to that, when Moses ascended the mountain – after smashing the first set, seeing how little his action changed the people’s behavior – the date would have been the beginning of Elul, the month prior to Rosh Hashana. It is a custom to recite prayers of repentance asking for forgiveness (S’lichot) either from the beginning of this month (Sefardim) or during the week leading up to Rosh Hashana (Ashkenazim). We can aspire to something better this next time around!

Unlike receiving Torah on a single peak at Sinai, proclaiming blessings and curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival teaches us that positive actions – and even good intentions – have a separate life of their own, not weighted down by ways in which we don’t live up to our best aspirations. As we come to understand the consequences of our behaviors, the opportunity comes around for us yet again to follow the path towards blessing, to take specific steps in that direction, and to see a world stretched out before us from that new vantage point. Then maybe we can be among those who hear words of blessing and call out – with all our heart – a resounding “Amen!”