Parshat Ki Tavo
Moshe proclaims the final section of his farewell address:
And Moshe commanded the people on that day, saying: “These shall stand to bless (L’VARECH) the people on Mount Gerizim when you cross the Jordan: Shimon and Levi and Yehudah and Yissachar and Yosef and Binyamin. And these shall stand for the curse (AL HA’KELALA) on Mount Eival: Reuven, Gad and Asher and Zevulun, Dan and Naftali. And the Leviim shall speak up and say to every man of Israel in a loud voice: ‘
“Cursed is the one who makes a
sculptured or cast idol, an abomination of
Hashem, the handiwork of an artisan, and puts it in
hiding (BA’SATER).” And all the people shall
respond and say ‘Amen.’
This procedure, explains Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvot, Principle #3), is not counted among the 613 commandments, since it is not meant for all times. It was carried out only once in history by Yehoshua:
And all Israel and its elders and officers and its judges were standing on either side of the Ark, facing the Kohanim the Leviim who carry the Ark of Hashem’s Covenant, stranger and citizen alike, half towards Mount Gerizim and half towards Mount Eival, as Moshe the servant of Hashem had commanded to bless the people of Israel originally. And afterwards he read all the words of the Torah, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the Torah (Yehoshua 8:33-34).
The Mishnah (Sotah 7:5) explains how this was done. After the Israelites’ initial battles, with a foothold in the Land, they would arrive in the area of Shechem (about 48 km. north of Jerusalem). Shechem had also been Avraham’s first encampment in Canaan (Bereishit 12:6) and the first place Yaakov settled when he returned (33:18).
These mountains are chosen for their symbolic and visual impact: when facing east, Mount Gerizim is on the preferred right while Mount Eival is on the left-north: From the north shall the evil proceed (Yirmiyahu 1:14). Mount Gerizim is verdant; Mount Eival is barren.
Ibn-Ezra explains: The six tribes chosen for the blessing are children of Leah and Rachel; the four children of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah stand for the curses. Adding two sons of Leah – the eldest Reuven and the youngest Zevulun – to the sons of the maidservants evens the numbers.
In the valley would be the Ark, surrounded by a ring of serving Kohanim and then a ring of serving Leviim (non-active Levites were on Mount Gerizim). The Levites faced Mount Gerizim, pronounced the first blessing (“…who does not make an idol …”), and all would answer “Amen.” Then the Levites faced Mount Eival, pronounced the first curse, and all would answer “Amen...” and so on.
The blessings are not mentioned explicitly in our passage. Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1879) says this is because they are not blessings in the conventional sense; after all, one does not deserve to be blessed for not making an idol! Rather, they are protections: When individuals violate these prohibitions secretly, the community can be punished for them, so the blessings protect them.
Also, to bless (L’VARECH) is an infinitive while for the curse (AL HA’KELALA) is a prepositional phrase: While the intent of the blessings is to bless, there is no reciprocal desire to curse, but only to attest to the possibility of a curse.
Why are these eleven misdeeds singled out? The Torah mentioned both their prohibitions and punishments elsewhere; why add blessing and curse?
Ibn-Ezra says they involve sins which, had they been witnessed, could lead to punishment, even the death penalty, but here are done in secret (BA’SATER). (Rashi says that the one who strikes his friend in secret has spoken lashon hara.) The curses remind people not to commit these grave sins, even clandestinely, while the concluding curse reminds them to support the entire Torah.
Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershom, 1288-1344) identifies three categories of sin: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, under which are subsumed a number of related transgressions. For example, the following are related to idolatry: “…disrespect to his father and his mother …” is disrespect for one’s origins, and so is tantamount to idolatry. One who “…encroaches on his friend’s boundary …”, “…misleads the blind on the road …” or “… erverts the justice of a stranger, orphan or widow …” ignores, or denies, Hashem’s Providence.
Rashi, based on Moshe HaDarshan (11th Century) says these eleven correspond to the tribes; however, since Moshe did not intend to bless Shimon when he blessed the other tribes (see chapter 33), he did not want to curse him either. Thus, there are only eleven.
Reuven interfered between Yaakov and Bilhah (Bereishit 35:22) which, although objectionable, was not actually lying“ with his father’s wife”; otherwise, how could his tribe hear this curse and answer “Amen”? (Shabbat 55b). In like fashion, Abravanel (Don Yitzchak Abravanel, 1437- 508) demonstrates a one-to-one correspondence between each curse and a tribe, relating either to past sins or to future ones.
Malbim adds that these sins are so fundamental that all humankind (bnei Noach) are enjoined to observe many of them, and the Patriarchs and the twelve sons of Yaakov safeguarded themselves regarding them. The final statement then incorporates everything commanded by Moshe.
In this singular public forum, Israel binds itself to the Torah for eternity.