Ki Tavo 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1- 29:8)


Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the commandment to bring the first fruits to the priests. This ritual includes a verse many will recognize from the Passover Seder, recalling that “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” This is followed by an elaborate staging in order to illustrate the many blessings that will follow one who follows Torah, and the many curses which will come upon the nation if they don’t. The parasha concludes with a review of the good things that God has done for Israel since the exodus from Egypt.


“Moses summoned all Israel, and said to them: You have seen all that God did in Egypt before your very eyes, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land. Your own eyes saw the great miracles, signs and wonders. But until this day, God did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Deuteronomy 29:1-3)


Having dramatically elaborated upon the perils of disobeying God’s covenant, Moshe urges the people to remember all that God has done for them and thus recommit themselves to the covenant, which will bring many blessings once they settle in the Land. They haven’t always chosen well in the past, but they can in the future.


Moshe appears to be telling the people that even though they have witnessed many miraculous things- such as the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the manna in the desert, and Miriam’s well, among others- they never quite understood what lessons they were supposed to draw from these experiences. On the one hand, this makes sense; if Israel had truly understood the significance of Sinai, perhaps it would not have made the Golden Calf, for example.

Yet by saying that it was God who did not give Israel the “heart to know,” Moshe poses a theological problem, for if God didn’t give people a “knowing heart,” then how could God hold the people responsible for disobedience? This might remind us of how the Torah tells us God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go from slavery- and again, the classic problem is that people cannot be held responsible for their actions if they don’t have truly free will to choose good or evil.

Different commentators have different solutions to this dilemma. Ibn Ezra agrees that the Israelites repeatedly demonstrated their lack of understanding, but says that God “gave” them a defective heart only in the sense that God is the First Cause of all things. This relieves God of the moral responsibility of the Israelite’s disobedience, but I don’t think it really addresses the plain meaning of our verse.

Rambam thinks the people lacked proper intellectual understanding of the miracles; for him, “heart” means intellect or understanding.* Perhaps Rambam thinks that the Israelites had erroneous ideas about how to interpret God’s actions on their behalf, or perhaps they thought that the miracles were some sort of magic, or they didn’t understand that God was the source of their sustenance. Reading the verse this way, we might conclude that God is enabling the people to “grow up” intellectually, after so many years of struggling to understand.

Rashi, on the other hand understands “God did not give you a heart to know” in emotional or spiritual terms:

“Heart to know”- to recognize the kindnesses of the Holy Blessed One, and [thus] to cleave to God.”

Perhaps Rashi is suggesting that indeed, the people saw the miracles, but they didn’t understand that the miracle was a kindness, per se. This makes sense to me: after the trauma of slavery, perhaps the people simply could not accept or understand love and kindness- it was something they hadn’t experienced from the “god” called Pharaoh. We might compare this to people who have suffered abusive childhoods or relationships, who years later may be unable to receive ordinary kindnesses- they simply can’t trust that someone is doing something nice for them. Thus, our verse may be suggesting that one of God’s gifts is the ability to heal over time, to learn to accept love even after terrible trauma.

Yet a little bit later in his commentary, Rashi quotes another possible understanding of “God did not give you a heart to know:”

    A person cannot totally understand the knowledge of his teacher or the wisdom of his studying until forty years. Thus, God was not strict with them until “this day”, but from now on God will be more demanding, so therefore “observe the words of this covenant.” (v 29:8)

At first glance, this reading is similar to Rambam’s, apparently concerned with the proper intellectual growth of the Israelites. Yet to me, Rashi’s parable of the teacher is not so much about intellectual growth but rather about the ability to responsibly commit one’s life, which comes only with maturity and time. All the intellectual knowledge in the world won’t change one’s life until one is mature enough to apply it- or even mature enough to admit that one needs to change!

Perhaps Rashi is suggesting that time and experience bring not only the capacity to heal, but the capacity for thoughtful reflection. It’s not the fiery commitment of one’s youth that God is looking for, but a more sober introspection and review of one’s life and learning. At first glance, the verse seems to be suggesting that God created people with a fatal defect, an inability to understand crucial lessons. Turned around, and applying Rashi’s commentary, we might see in this verse a hint of one of God’s great gifts: the ability to grow over time, to take responsibility for our own development, to continually revisit and deepen our understanding of our place in the world. Rather than demand perfection all at once, God give us forty years- a whole lifetime’s journey- to grow a “knowing heart.”

(see Guide to the Perplexed, 1:39, and Torat HaRambam on this passage)

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