August 7, 2018

On death and rebirth (Ki Tavo)

Towards the end of Parshat Ki Tavo we encounter one of the most cryptic verses in the Torah, yet upon closer inspection, perhaps one of the most important.

Having outlined the blessings for those who observe the Torah, and the curses for those who abrogate the Torah, Moshe on his final day on this earth summons the Jewish people, and in stark contrast to his impending death we find that the people experience what can only be described as a spiritual rebirth.

Based on Devarim 29:3 which speaks about how G-d ‘did not give you a heart to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this very day’, Rashi explains that the people felt aggrieved by the fact that earlier that day Moshe had given a Torah scroll to ‘the Kohanim, the sons of Levi, the bearers of the Ark of the covenant of G-d and to all the elders of Israel’ (Devarim 31:9). Rather than grumble, the people spoke up: ‘Moshe our teacher! We too stood at Sinai and we accepted the Torah and it was also given to us! Why do you put the sons of your tribe in charge of it, because – by doing so – one day they may say to us, “it was not given to you, it was just given to us!”’.

One may naturally think that this challenge against the Kohanim and Leviim was merely another rebellion of the Jewish people comparable to the protest of Korach and his followers (see Bemidbar 16:3) – but this is not the case. In terms of the challenge of Korach which occurred 39 years previously the people sought authority and power, while here, the people sought connection and belonging. Their complaint was not rooted in the jealousy towards the Kohanim and Leviim. Instead, it expressed a fear that they would become excluded from their own tradition, while at the same time, it also expressed a deep commitment to that tradition which until then they had regularly challenged.

This was the greatest gift that Moshe could have been given on his final day – the knowledge that the Jewish people were sincere in their commitment to the covenant. He exclaimed, ‘this day you have become a people to G-d’ (Devarim 27:9), meaning ‘this day I have understood that you are connected to and want a greater connection with G-d’ (Rashi on Devarim 29:3). Yet it is the G-d-centredness of their realisation which is, according to the Meshech Chochmah (on Devarim 29:3), the key to understanding this spiritual rebirth.
Until now the people had viewed Moshe as someone with divine powers and as a divine intermediary, but in placing Moshe on this pedestal the people also felt a sense of distance between themselves and G-d – as if their relationship with G-d was dependent on Moshe.

As Moshe stood before the Jewish people on the day of his death and, in doing so, highlighted both his humanity and his mortality, the people came to realise what I believe to be the most important message of the Torah which is that we each have a personal relationship with G-d. It was ‘on this day’ that the people came to appreciate that it was G-d Himself who had given them a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.

Sometimes this level of G-d-centeredness occurs during times of joy and celebration, while often it emerges during times of tragedy and loss. But what is clear is that on the day Moshe died he felt good in knowing that the people were willing and able to maintain their own independent relationship with G-d, and the people felt good in knowing that this is precisely what they had.

Shabbat Shalo

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