Tag Archives: Ki Tavo

Covenantal Judaism: Ki Tavo 5780

About fifteen years ago Rabbi David Wolpe suggested that Conservative Judaism be rebranded as Covenantal Judaism. I felt this to be an attractive solution to our brand challenge. Wolpe spoke of the covenant on numerous levels—a theological covenant between Jews and God, a national covenant between Jews and each other, and an ethical covenant between Jews, other peoples, and our very planet. This was an aspirational framing, a bridge between ancient and emerging Judaism. “Conservative,” in contrast, felt like an attempt to cling to a possession before it slipped away. It also had political overtones that were unrelated to the original intentions and unpopular with many if not most members of the movement. This has not exactly changed. Neither has our brand name, at least in America, and maybe it doesn’t really matter.

However, covenant is one of the core frameworks for understanding the Torah. Both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy the relationship between God and Israel is described as a treaty that is mutually binding and beneficial. This framework is on display throughout the portion of Ki Tavo, including its fearful list of curses that will follow failure to abide by the agreement.

Let’s focus on a brief passage of four verses, and even closer on just two words at their center. Deuteronomy 16: 16-19 is a pithy encapsulation of the entire Torah. “On this very day,” Moses tells Israel, “the Lord commands you” to obey all the these statutes and laws with all your heart and all your soul. The sages took this literally—that forty years since Sinai Moses finally revealed the fullness of Torah to the people–and deduced that no student can assume that they have understood their teacher until they have studied with them for forty years! But I prefer Rashi’s take (based on Bavli Brakhot 63b)—the words of Torah should always remain fresh in your eyes, as if they were given today.

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Ki Tavo 5777: Blessed in Both Directions

Sometimes translations can’t help but make a mess of the original. A prime example is Deuteronomy 28:6, which in Hebrew consists of six poetic words: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ. JPS requires 15 words to render this in English, “Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings.” Other translations are not much shorter, but they offer a more satisfying, “when you come in,” and “when you go out” (RSV, Alter). Everett Fox, as usual, tries to capture the sound of the Hebrew, but his rendition is still a mouthful: “Blessed be you, in your coming-in, blessed be you, in your going-out.” One challenge for translators is that English lacks the pronominal suffixes and prefix prepositions that allow Hebrew to be so compact.

Another challenge is that the original text is both obvious and opaque. We don’t really know if the Torah intends a simple blessing for arriving home and leaving again, which would basically repeat v.3, “blessed in the city, blessed in the field,” or if the Torah is implying something more elaborate. The phrase could be a merism, that is, an expression which encompasses all possibilities. Hence, “you will be blessed everywhere.” Medieval commentaries consider various options, associating these arrivals and departures either with commerce (looking back to vs. 4-5) or battle (Hizkuni, looking ahead to v. 7), or both. Good for the medieval commentators for offering such contextual readings! (I also like the dressed-up Aramaic Targum Yonatan, which offers, “Blessed are you when you come home to the study hall, and blessed too when you go out to the marketplace”—the rabbinic fantasy life). Continue reading