Not Just another Warning

And if you will not listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d to take care to perform all of His commandments and statutes that I command you today, then all of these curses will come upon you and overtake you.  (Sefer Devarim 28:15).

1.  Moshe’s warning is read before Rosh HaShanah

A large portion of Parshat Ki Tavo is devoted to Moshe’s stern warning to the people.  If they observe the commandments of the Torah, then they will be rewarded with wondrous blessings. If they are unfaithful, then they will bring upon themselves terrible suffering and exile.  Moshe begins his description of the consequences of abandoning the commandments with a general description of the suffering that will befall the nation.  He then provides a more detailed description of the terrible calamities that the nation will experience.  In this description he foretells the most wretched and horrid ordeals that our nation has endured.

Our Sages refer to this section as Moshe’s tochachah – his rebuke.  Our Sages apportioned the sections of the Torah to their respective weeks so that this section is read two weeks prior to Rosh HaShanah.  Rosh Hashanah initiates a period of judgment that is completed with Yom Kippur.  The superficial connection between this Torah reading and the approaching period is easily identified.  This is the period during which our people and all humanity are judged. The reading describes the blessings that will accrue to us if this judgment is favorable and the suffering that may befall us if the judgment is unfavorable.  However, is there a deeper connection between this Torah reading and the period of judgment?

If you abhor My statutes and your souls reject My ordinances so as not to perform all of My commandments – so as to overturn My covenant, then  I too will act thus toward you.  I will punish you with consumption and fever that bring despair and sorrow.  You will sow for naught your seeds.  Your enemies will eat it.  (Sefer VaYikra 26:15-16)

2.  The rebuke of Parshat Bechukotai and its message of consolation

An additional section of the Torah is described, as a rebuke – a tochachah.  This section is contained in Parshat Bechukotai.  This rebuke describes with horrid detail the consequences of abandoning the Torah.  However, there is a fundamental difference between this earlier version of rebuke and Moshe’s warning.

Moshe’s warning focuses exclusively upon the rewards for observance of the commandments and the consequences of abandoning the Torah.  The rebuke in Parshat Bechukotai describes the consequences for abandonment of the Torah and then assures the nation of its ultimate redemption from its afflictions.  The final passage assures the people that Hashem will recall His covenant with the Patriarchs.  He will not forsake the nation He redeemed from Egypt.

This additional element seems to be intended to encourage and console the people.  Even in the depth of suffering and when afflicted by the most intense persecution, the people should realize that they have not been abandoned.  Hashem will remember His covenant with the Patriarchs and rescue His people.

Sefer Devarim is composed primarily of Moshe’s final messages to the nation.  Moshe includes in his address assurances similar to the consolatory material in Parshat Bechukotai’s rebuke.  Moshe understood that this message is essential to the nation’s survival.  It will provide hope at times of intense suffering and persecution.  However, this message of consolation is expressed elsewhere in Sefer Devarim; it is not included in his rebuke.  Why did he not include this message in his tochachah?

3.  The eternity of the covenant

The conciliatory passages that conclude the Parshat Bechukotai rebuke provide a message of hope that will sustain the Jewish people in the darkest periods of its history.  However, these passages also indicate that the Torah’s presentation in Parshat Bechukotai is more than a rebuke.  It is also an elaboration upon the covenant between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael.  The covenant between the nation and Hashem demands that the nation observe the Torah.  It is an agreement.  Our fulfillment of our portion of the agreement secures Hashem’s blessings.  Our violation of the terms of the agreement will have severe consequences.  However, because the presentation is an explanation of the covenant, it includes an additional element.  The covenant will never be forgotten or abandoned.  We will be chastised for wrongdoing but never forsaken.  Redemption is an inevitable outcome of the covenant.

And observe the words of this covenant and perform them so that you will succeed in all that you do.  (Sefer Devarim 28:8).

4.  Moshe’s rebuke, its message, and Rosh HaShanah

The above passage concludes a short section of our parasha that follows Moshe’s rebuke. In this section Moshe reminds the people of the miracles of their redemption from Egypt.  He recounts the wonders of their sojourn in the wilderness.  He reminds the people of their triumph over the mighty kings Sichon and Og.  He ends with the above passage – another admonition to observe to commandments.  What is the connection between this admonition and the preceding passages?

Moshe’s message is that the nation has witnessed Hashem’s omnipotence.  The people have seen His wonders and miracles.  These provide testimony to His power over nature.  Their own experience provides absolute proof that success and blessing are not products of nature and fate.  They are an expression of divine will.

These passages directly follow Moshe’s rebuke and reveal his intention.  Moshe wishes to impress upon the people that their destiny will not be determined by their industry or wisdom.  It will be determined by their commitment to observance.  He understands that it is difficult to peer beyond the thick veil of the material world and recognize that it is but an expression of divine will.  Our destiny is not decided by our efforts to manipulate and subdue nature to serve our purposes.  Success is a product of Hashem’s will and His blessings.  These blessings are secured through our devotion to Him and to His Torah.

Moshe did not include in his message the conciliatory closing of Parshat Bechukotai’s rebuke.   These passages have no place in his message.  His message is a charge to the nation to recognize that their destiny will be guided by Hashem and it will reflect their choice – to serve Hashem or to abandon His Torah.

Why is the tochachah of Parshat KiTavo read before the approaching period of judgment? This period is not devoted only to judgment.  Judgment is an expression of Hashem’s majesty and glory.  We realize that because He is creator and ruler, we are subject to His judgment.  In other words, our realization that we are judged during the approaching days moves us to recognize Hashem’s sovereignty.  We read Moshe’s tochahah not only because it speaks of judgment.  We read it because it is a declaration of Hashem’s kingship.

The relationship between judgment and recognition of Hashem’s malchut – His kingship is reflected in the prayers of Rosh HaShanah.  The focus of the liturgy is not upon judgment; its focus is upon His majesty over all creation.  If our only response to these Days of Awe is limited to fear and trepidation evoked by the forthcoming judgment, then we have missed an important element of these days.  We must recognize that judgment is an expression of Hashem’s sovereignty over humanity and all of creation.