Parashat Ki Tavo
September 2, 2023 | 16 Elul 5783
Torah: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 Triennial:
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Our parashah opens with us giving the first fruits to God and declaring our allegiance to God. In return, God sets us above all other nations “as praise and as name and as glory.” Near the end of our parashah, we find a similar three word list of what we will become if we don’t observe God’s commandments. In the midst of a long list of terrible curses, we read that we will become “as horror, as a proverb, and as a byword” among all the peoples amongst whom we are exiled. The first set is clearly good and the second set is clearly bad. But what exactly any of the words mean and why they are juxtaposed with each other is unclear.
Both of these descriptions depend on God’s original blessing to Abraham. In Lech Lecha, Abraham is to leave his thrice-described homeland so that God can bless him, make his name great, and he can be a blessing. The passage continues, explaining that Abraham will be a blessing because God will bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse Abraham. In our parashah, full of blessings and curses, our fate also determines the fate of the world. When all is well, we reflect God back into the world, elevating the nations above which we have been placed. When we choose not to reflect God’s presence back into the world, our very existence becomes a curse to other nations, our downfall presages theirs.
The question remains, however, of what exactly each of the words used in the phrases in our parashah means. Elsewhere in the Tanakh, we find God making or setting us for two out of the three words used in these phrases. Once in Jeremiah, all three words are listed together but in a different order.
The first of these words is praise, tehillah. Often, particularly in Psalms, Tehillim, we offer our praise to God. God is praiseworthy, even awesome in praise, as we say daily during Shacharit. Indeed, it is through our praising that God is enthroned, as we recite in Psalm 22 on Shabbat. In our parashah, God turns us into God’s praise. The ultimate sign of covenant is God creating us as the partner that God needs, enabling us to fulfill our side of the deal. God is praiseworthy, and we are God’s praise.
The second word is name, shem. This word often connotes remembrance, perpetuity. Those with a name have a history and a future. They cannot be forgotten. In Deuteronomy, it is used most often in the phrase “the place where God will put his name,” meaning the site of the future Temple. For God to make us a name, particularly in the context of bringing our first fruits, is for God to inextricably link God’s home with our existence.
The final of the good words is glory, tiferet. Together with shem, this word appears often in discussion of the Temple. We sing them out gloriously during Lecha Dodi, imagining the beautiful state of our covenant with God. Like tehillah, tiferet is also frequently mentioned as an attribute of God. In this covenant, God grants us God’s own attributes.
If the three positive words show us as radiating God’s presence into the world, the three negative words show us as looking at ourselves from a distanced viewpoint. Rather than our existence stemming from God, our perception of ourselves comes from how others see us. We look at ourselves through their eyes instead of God’s eyes.
The first negative word is horror, shema from shemem. This plays on the idea of shem, name, in the positive word. What should have been our perpetuity becomes our destruction. Our very name becomes a pit of despair. What was the place of God’s house becomes the undoing of creation, total annihilation.
The second negative word is proverb, mashal. We who were once God’s tehillah have become God’s mashal, we have gone from praise to warning tale. In the Torah, we find this word in the mouth of Balaam, uttering warnings to Moab.
The final negative word is byword, shnina. It comes from the root shin-nun-nun, meaning to sharpen, giving rise to its meaning as a sharp word or taunt. It appears just three times in the Torah, all in Deuteronomy, tracing a terrible progression from love to warning to death. We read it first in the Shema, here meaning “to teach” in “you shall teach them to your children.” It appears next in our parashah, and finally in the Song of Moses when God speaks of whetting his sword on his enemies. We who were once God’s tiferet, God’s crowning glory, have become the object of God’s sword.
Of course, God gives us a choice. We can choose to be praise, to be a name, to be glory. And God lets us choose again and again and again, even after we’ve become a horror, a proverb, and a byword.