September 17, 2022: Parashat Ki Tavo – It’s All About Unification
This week's Torah portion is from Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8. Join David as he speaks on the topic of UNIFICATION from the context of "entering the Land" and holding on to the promised blessings, and avoiding the curses through disobedience.
Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashah:
Have you ever lit a candle and taken a moment to be drawn into the beauty of the lit fire… effervescent… mesmerizing? Have you ever noticed the beautiful array of colours dancing about within the flame? The blue changing into red into yellow into white… elevating upwards. In this imagery we catch a glimpse of unity – all these elements of the flame unified together as one, with one will to elevate. This provides us with a mere glimpse of the concept of unification, the topic of which we will unwrap in this week’s Torah portion.
In this week’s parashah, Moses really hammers home to the Children of Israel that either based on their obedience to the Torah, Hashem will rain down blessings upon them, or if they turn away from the Torah, they will experience curses; and throughout, there is a major emphasis on the curses.
And so we open up Parashat Ki Tavo to the words spoken by Moses to the people (Deuteronomy 26:1-3):
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃
“It will be when you enter the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you as an inheritance, and you take possession of it, and dwell in it, that you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that Hashem, your God, gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that Hashem, your God, will choose, to make His Name rest there. You shall come to the Kohen who will be in those days.”
“Ki Tavo” (“כִּי־תָבוֹא”) means “when you enter”.
Enter where? The Land. The Promised Land. But Moses goes on to elaborate that it wasn’t just about entering the Land, but the people were also to take possession of the Land, and also they were to dwell in it. Only then were they to bring the firstfruits of the Land to where the Kohanim served – ultimately to the Temple in Jerusalem. The firstfruits offering wasn’t an elaborate or extensive offering of produce, but rather a sampling of the seven species of the Land – wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive and honey. What was the significance of the firstfruits? And why was it important for the people not only to enter the Land, but also to take possession of it, and dwell in it?
Because in order for the people to recognize how wonderful the Land was, they had to take possession of it and dwell in it. To take possession of it, they had to conquer and eradicate the pagan nations there. And to dwell in it, they had to settle in their homes, work the land, and bring forth produce. This was all about living off of and appreciating the Land for the produce that it gave forth, and bringing these first fruits of the Land before Hashem as a recognition to Him Who gave the Land of abundance to them. This was all about recognition of Hashem Who extended His mighty arm to bring His beloved people out of bondage and into the Land promised to their forefathers. All Hashem asked for in return was a small sampling of the Land from every man, every year (between the festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot).
Not only that, but later in the same chapter (in Deuteronomy 26:12), Moses says: “When you have finished tithing every tithe of your produce of the third year, the year of the tithe, and you will have given to the Levite, to the convert, to the orphan, and to the widow, and they will have eaten in your cities and will have been satisfied…”
Why the third year? Because after two years of experiencing indwelling in the Land, the people were to now offer first tithe to the Levites and the tithe to the poor for the first time.
So what was the purpose of all of this giving – first of the firstfruits, then to the Levites and the poor? Only then were the people “eligible” to call down blessings from Heaven upon themselves and the Land.
In Deuteronomy 26:15, they were to say before Hashem: “Gaze down from Your holy abode, from the Heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground that You gave us, as You swore to our forefathers, a Land flowing with milk and honey.”
These commands are somewhat of a reiteration from several weeks ago in Parashat Re’eh where I pointed out that charity is an obligation. There, I said: “By blessing or curse, the produce of the Land will either bring forth abundance or not. The preference should always be for an abundance of course, and under such a scenario of abundance, charity is to be given a high level of importance. Why? Because the Land belongs to the One and Only. The Land belongs to Hashem. The Land is His to give and it is His to take away.” Here, Hashem was adding the priority of providing a sampling of the Land in honour of Him Who gave them the Land.
In Deuteronomy 27, Moses goes on to command that when the people are in the Land, that they are to go to Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, and 6 of the tribes are to stand on the slope of one mountain (Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin are to stand on Mount Gerizim) and the other 6 tribes are to stand on the slope of the other mountain (Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali are to stand on Mount Ebal).
As we find out in the Book of Joshua (Joshua 8:33-35), the Kohanim (the priests) stood in front of the two groups of tribes in between the two mountains, with the Kohanim first speaking the blessings towards Mount Gerizim, followed by speaking the curses towards Mount Ebal. After every blessing and curse, both groups of tribes were to say the word “Amen”. This is most certainly an interesting act. Sure we could chalk it up to a decree from Hashem that they were obeying and move on, but there is more to it then meets the eye.
First, what does the picture of the tribes standing beneath a mountain remind you of? Mount Sinai. There, at Mount Sinai, the people were not to come close to the mountain, but only look on as Moses ascended it to receive the Torah from Hashem. There, at Mount Sinai, the people could only look on and hear with awe the thundery and fiery presence of Hashem on the mountain. There, the people made a vow before Hashem saying (in Exodus 24:7): “We will do and we will hear”. Here, the tribes were standing on the slopes of Mounts Gerizim and Ebal, uttering their acceptance to the blessings and the curses with the word “Amen”, all in the presence of the Kohanim – those sanctified unto Hashem. Whereas at Mount Sinai, the people confirmed their allegiance to Hashem and His commandments, here at Mounts Gerizim and Ebal, the people were confirming their acceptance of the blessings and the curses tied to their remaining in the Land. While Mount Sinai represented their connection to Hashem, Mounts Gerizim and Ebal represented their connection to the Land.
Second, why two mountains instead of one? Why could the people not just say “Amen” to the blessings and the curses standing on the slope of one mountain facing the Kohanim? Because there had to be a separation between the blessings and the curses given that blessings and curses are polar opposites of each other. Even the division of the tribes does not appear to be done in any orderly fashion according to any of their prior listings in the Torah. As such, the two groups had to visually see the clear and apparent divide between them to understand that there is also a great divide between the blessings and the curses – a great divide that could potentially tear apart the nation.
Third, the two mountains happen to be located smack dab in the center of the Promised Land, on either side of the city of Shechem. This particular city has a colourful history for the nation of Israel as well, going back to the days of Jacob who upon returning to the Land from the house of Laban where he sojourned for 20 years, he settled in this area of Shechem (Genesis 33). If you recall, it was here that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was violated by the son of the ruler of Shechem and in an act of revenge, his sons – Simeon and Levi – slaughtered all the men of the city. As a result, Jacob was forced to leave for fear of retaliation. Years later, it was in the same vicinity that the younger son Joseph went in search of his brothers on behalf of his father Jacob, and through an act of jealousy was sold by them into slavery there (Genesis 37).
Another notable event happened here centuries later as well. Following King Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam took the throne (1 Kings 12). Interestingly, even though it was not necessary, Rehoboam chose to be coronated as king in Shechem. While there, it says that a congregation from the nation met him there to request relief from the high taxes implemented by his father Solomon. Instead of listening to his father’s wise counsellors, he listened to his younger, foolish counsellors who advised him to be forceful with the congregation… to show no sign of weakness, and to threaten with even higher taxes. That was the day that the nation split, with the 10 northern tribes seceding away from the Kingdom of Judah to form the Kingdom of Israel. Their first king was Jeroboam who set the kingdom on a path moving away from Hashem.
Thus, Mounts Gerizim and Ebal (and the city of Shechem) carry notable significance to the nation of Israel. In fact, “Shechem” means “shoulder”. In the context of this city and the history of the nation around this city, it is no wonder that it has served as the “shoulders” of the nation of Israel. Think of the two mountains – Gerizim and Ebal – as the two shoulders of support for the nation. It is here that so much difficulty has occurred in the history of the nation – from Dinah to Joseph to Rehoboam and Jeroboam.
As mentioned earlier, there is more than meets the eye with respect to the blessings and curses of Mounts Gerizim and Ebal. Remember, this parashah is about entering the Land, possessing the Land, and dwelling in the Land. In order to do so and to remain in the Land, the blessings and the curses had to be acknowledged by the people in a tangible manner at a unique and memorable location that bore significance to them. Remember, before this portion in the parashah, it was about first acknowledging Hashem for bringing the people to the Land with a firstfruits offering of the Land, followed by recognition of the Levites – their teachers of the Torah, and the converts, orphans and widows in their midst. They were obligated to recognize each other and most importantly those who needed their support. For if they were capable of recognizing the lowest of society with the proceeds of the Land, only then could they value and take serious the blessings and the curses tied to their presence in the Land. And collectively as a nation of 12 tribes confirming the blessings and curses with the word “Amen”, and living according to the blessings, they would remain in the Land, unified as one nation. Clearly, this unity didn’t last. A mere 3 kings into the kingship of the unified nation, and lo and behold, the nation divided.
In the days of Yeshua, Jews and Samaritans did not mingle, let alone associate with each other. The reason for this animosity could be dated back centuries earlier to the Hellenization of the area under Antiochus Epiphanes, or perhaps even earlier before that going all the way back to the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, respectively. Nevertheless, in John 4, we read of Yeshua going out of his way to travel through Samaria.
As the story goes, Yeshua and his disciples: “…entered one of the towns of Samaria named Suchar, across from the portion of the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Yeshua was weary from the journey, so he sat at the well.”
This was in very close proximity to Shechem. The story goes on to tell us that the disciples left Yeshua there in search of food, and a Samaritan woman came to the well in the middle of the afternoon to draw water. It was at this place that he – a Jew of Judean descent, asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. She responded: “Look, you are a Jew. How is it that you ask me for a drink, since I am a Samaritan woman?”
Yeshua answered and said to her: “If you only knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Please give me a drink’! For then you would have asked him and he would have given you living water!” Later, Yeshua went on to say to her: “All that drink this water will return and become thirsty. But whoever drinks from the water that I give him will never become thirsty, because the water that I will give him will become within him a source of water flowing to eternal life.”
It was then that he revealed his knowledge of her life’s difficult circumstances, and revealed to her that he was the Messiah. She was so ecstatic that she left her pitcher, went to the town saying to people: “Come and see a man who told me all that I have done! Perhaps this is the Messiah!” It later says that many Samaritans from that town believed in him regarding the word that the woman testified, and he stayed there with them for two days.
We certainly do not know what the extent of the impact of Yeshua’s visit to Shechem was; however, the fact of the matter is that Yeshua’s visit to Shechem served a purpose of rectification within the nation of Israel. I believe he visited the city with the sole purpose of bridging the gap of separation in the nation. He had full knowledge of the brokenness that littered the city’s history, and that was so intrinsically tied to the unity of the nation at large. I believe the Samaritans were a remnant of the Northern Tribes that returned to the Land of their exiled Kingdom of Israel, or atleast some of them. Yes, even on their return, they made poor judgment calls in giving into the Hellenization efforts of Antiochus – much in line with the footsteps of their fathers who turned away from Hashem in the days of the kings of the Kingdom of Israel. Nevertheless, a bridge had to be forged between Jew and Samaritan, and Yeshua took the first steps.
If we claim to follow in the footsteps of our Master Yeshua, then we must do as he did, as he only did the will of his Father in Heaven. Unification not only for the nation of Israel, but also for the entire world, is completely dependent on our ability to humble ourselves amongst our brethren. We must first recognize that all that we are and all that we have belongs to Hashem and comes from Him and Him alone. We don’t accomplish anything in this world without His consent. All of our possessions and produce come from what He has blessed us with. Therefore, the least that we can do is give Him a “taste” of the firstfruits of our talents and giftings – all of which come from Hashem. This could be a simple heartfelt thanksgiving of praise and adoration to Him, or a more tangible monetary offering to the service of Him. We must also recognize those in our society – the poor and the needy – those who cannot take care of themselves, who rely on the freewill offerings of others to make ends meet. Finally, we must recognize each other as a collective – whether as the nation of Israel or as believers in Yeshua – and honour and respect each other and each other’s talents and giftings accordingly so that we may operate as a unified whole and not as splintered, divisive parts.
Remember, this is about unification. There is no room for ulterior motives. If having entered the Land, having possessed the Land and dwelled in the Land, if we expect to remain in the Land, we must acknowledge the blessings and the curses. It is the curses that come as a result of the rejection of the Torah and ultimately of Hashem that bring division. It is the blessings that allow us to remain in the Land as we continue to cleave to Hashem through focusing our sights on our Master Yeshua in replicating the life that he lived in perfect harmony with his Heavenly Father.
May we recognize all that Hashem does for us and acknowledge Him accordingly. May we recognize the poor and the needy and actively support them to the best of our abilities. May we recognize each other and actively work to unify ourselves in a state of humility and selflessness each and every day. Just like a flame… elevating ever higher.