Parshat Ki Tavo תשפ

This week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo is famous for the תוכחה  – the Tochacha.  (No English word adequately captures the meaning of Tochacha, but its meaning will become clear as we go along.) The Tochacha comprises 54 verses that contain 98 curses to be unleashed upon the Jewish people in stages from lighter to more and more severe if they ignore the Torah’s laws and do as they please. In an effort to bring the sinners back to the path of the Torah, in the Tochacha Hashem warns them of what will befall them if they choose not to return. The curses are horrific and designed to teach us that it doesn’t pay to leave Hashem and His Torah.

In shul, the Torah reader reads these verses in a quiet voice and quicker than usual because we want to avoid dwelling on these horrifying details. The Tochacha appears in the sixth aliya to the Torah, usually a prestigious one, but here, it  goes to the Torah reader himself. This is so that no one feels that he was called to the Torah so that the curses should come upon him.

Ki Tavo always falls out a week or two before Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud (Megillah 31b) teaches us.

תניא רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר עזרא תיקן להן לישראל שיהו קורין קללות שבתורת כהנים קודם עצרת ושבמשנה תורה קודם ראש השנה מאי טעמא אמר אביי ואיתימא ריש לקיש כדי שתכלה השנה וקללותיה

Rabbi Shimon son of Elazar says: Ezra the Scribe instituted that the Jewish people should read the tochacha in Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashanah… Why is that? Abaye (and some say Riesh Lakish) explained. “Let that year and all its curses come to an end.”

We want to read the curses, and be done with them, before the new year starts.

What does “That year and all its curses” mean? The year comes with its curses?

The Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashana (1:2) teaches us.

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה כָּל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם עוֹבְרִין לְפָנָיו כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן,

On Rosh Hashanah all people in the world pass in front of Hashem for judgment like (a shepherd counting his) sheep.      

Rosh Hashanah is the day of judgment for all humanity. Hashem determines the fate of every human being for the coming year. Just as when a shepherd counts his sheep, he makes an opening in the fence just large enough to allow one sheep to exit at a time as he counts it, so, too, Hashem is looking at each of us individually and judging us to determine our fate for the coming year. Every facet of everyone’s life for the coming year is determined on Rosh Hashanah.

In the Rosh Hashanah prayers we say.

כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ. מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּחַת שִׁבְטוֹ. כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִפְקֹד נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי. וְתַחְתֹּךְ קִצְבָה לְכָל בְּרִיָּה. וְתִכְתֹּב אֶת גְּזַר דִּינָם

Like a shepherd inspecting his flock making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן. וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן. וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן. מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת. מִי בְּקִצּוֹ. וּמִי לֹא בְּקִצּוֹ. מִי בַּמַּיִם. וּמִי בָּאֵשׁ. מִי בַּחֶרֶב. וּמִי בַּחַיָּה. מִי בָּרָעָב. וּמִי בַּצָּמָא. מִי בָּרַעַשׁ. וּמִי בַּמַּגֵּפָה. מִי בַּחֲנִיקָה. וּמִי בַּסְּקִילָה

On Rosh Hashanah they will be written and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed. How many will pass from the earth. How many will be created. Who will live and who will die. Who in his time and who before his time. Who by water, and who by fire. Who by sword and who by beast. Who by famine and who by thirst. Who by storm and who by pandemic, who by strangulation and who by stoning. 

As we stand before Hashem for judgment on Rosh Hashana, Hashem judges every facet of the coming year for each individual and for the world as a whole. Everything that transpires in the coming year was determined on the Rosh Hashana of that year. We never know what that judgment comprised, but, as the year unfolds, we find out. Who has gotten sick, who has passed away, who has had a child, who has found his bashert, and a zillion other details. All of these were determined on Rosh Hashana.

This idea should give us pause as we consider the coming Rosh Hashana. When we said these words on Rosh Hashana last year, we had no idea what was in store for us. Little did we know that this year’s judgment included an impending pandemic that would cause untold pain and suffering in the world. So many got very sick, many of whom eventually died. So many lost their jobs or closed their businesses for good. So many people are still cooped up in their homes for fear of catching the cursed virus. Who could have imagined that the whole world would be shut down and locked up in the matter of weeks? In one quick moment the entire world ceased to function.

Unfortunately, viruses don’t respond to antibiotics, and standard treatments so far do not work. Although it spread like wildfire, there was no understanding of how it spread and how to stop it. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and doctors were left baffled.

Looking back at ourselves last year, as we stood at the brink of our judgment for this year with all of its devastating components, is there something that we could have done that could have prevented Hashem from making this terrible judgment?

Based on the teachings of our Sages, the correct answer to this question is “Yes, there was.” If that is true, then now is the proper time to think about how to prepare ourselves for this coming year’s Rosh Hashana judgment so that we can avert any impending calamities from coming forth for the coming year.

To answer this question, we must first understand the criteria by which Hashem makes His judgments for the new year.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (6:12) says:

כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בָּעוֹלָמוֹ, לֹא בְרָאוֹ אֶלָּא לִכְבוֹדוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, כֹּל הַנִּקְרָא בִשְׁמִי וְלִכְבוֹדִי בְּרָאתִיו יְצַרְתִּיו אַף עֲשִׂיתִיו, וְאוֹמֵר יְדֹוָד יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד

Everything that Hashem created in His world, He created only for His honor. As the verse says (Isaiah 43:7), “Everyone who is called by My Name and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have fashioned even perfected.” Additionally, it says (Exodus 15:18), “Hashem will reign for ever and ever.”

What is the meaning of this Mishna? Why does Hashem need us to honor Him?

Our Sages explain that Hashem created everything in the world so that Mankind would recognize Him through His miraculous and brilliant creations. Hashem created the world to reveal Himself to us, and He does so through His creations. When man chooses to recognize Hashem as the Creator and the Master of the world, against the camouflage of nature and a world that looks like it’s run by people, we become worthy of the sublime reward that Hashem has placed us here to earn.  The world will reach its purpose when every human being recognizes Hashem as the Creator and Master of the universe. This will be the job of Mashiach, when he comes, hopefully, soon. He will know just the right things to say that will convince all mankind that Hashem, and only Hashem, is the King and Master of the universe.

The Talmud teaches us (Rosh Hashana 31a):

דאמר רב קטינא: שיתא אלפי שני הוה עלמא וחד חרוב שנאמר ונשגב ה’ לבדו ביום ההוא

Rav Katina said: The world was created to exist for 6,000 years, and then it will be destroyed for one year  (= one thousand years of Shabbat).

Hashem has allocated 6,000 years for Mankind to complete its mission. We are currently almost at year 5781, a mere 219 years from the deadline, and our world is still very far away from seeing Hashem as the world’s Creator and Master. On the contrary, most of the world has no use for Hashem and believe that the world came about and runs without any involvement from Him at all.

Rosh Hashana is the day of judgment. Why is that? Because that is the day that Hashem created the world and set His 6,000 – year plan into motion. Hashem chose that day as the day He evaluates His world to determine if it is progressing properly along its course towards its destination, or if it needs adjustment. If it is more or less on course, only minor adjustments will need to be made, and no cataclysmic events will be needed to right our thinking. If, however, we are far off the path and headed for a cliff where we will meet our end, there will need to be major corrections to set us back on the path so that the world can reach its goal of recognizing Hashem.

The world must fulfill its purpose, and that will be the accomplishment of Mashiach – to bring the world to its purpose by causing Mankind to recognize Hashem as the Creator and Master of the world. But, if the world is too far away from this idea, and Mashiach will have nobody to talk to when he comes, certain events will need to occur to prepare Mankind for his message.

This is the basis for Hashem’s judgments on Rosh Hashana. He is assessing what adjustments are necessary this year, to put the world back on its correct path, and what will be the most expedient and effective way to get that done. In last year’s judgment, Hashem felt that the world needed a major adjustment and, therefore, the pandemic. A situation that affected every person in the world, one that nobody could ignore.

It seems like Hashem wanted the world to direct their attention to Him, in the absence of any other options. The Covid – 19 virus proved one thing very well. Man had no answer to the problem. All the “gods” that man puts his trust in, science, technology, medicine, and money, were powerless in the face of the pandemic. What guaranty did anyone have that he would not catch it? Was there anyone who could say, “It can’t get me?” There was nowhere to turn, and nothing to depend on other than Hashem.

A few more exercises like this (we certainly hope not!) and we’ll be perfectly ready for Mashiach. We will have learned good and well that Hashem is in control and is Master of the universe.

But perhaps if we get the message and understand what Hashem wants from us, to recognize Him, we can get by without any more lessons.

This is the theme of Rosh Hashana – coronating Hashem as our King and accepting His Kingdom upon ourselves.  Let’s use the lesson that we learned from the pandemic to inspire us and motivate us to make Hashem our King and become better servants! By doing so, we will help avoid the need for any new lessons.

One may think, “What will my acceptance of Hashem do when the whole rest of the world denies Him? Won’t Hashem have to bring the lessons for the rest of the world?”

The answer to this question is in the Zohar, the foremost book of Kabalah. There it says:

זהר חדש (מרגליות) מדרש הנעלם דף כג/ב

אמר לו רבי אליעזר, חייך, דאי יחזרון בתשובה רישי כנישתא, או חדא כנישתא, בזכותם יתכנש כל גלותא. דקב”ה איסתכי תדירא, אימתי יחזרון, ויעבד להון טבא, דכתיב ולכן יחכה ה’ לחננכם. מחכה תמיד אימתי יעשו תשובה:

Rabbi Eliezer said, “I swear that if just the leaders of a community, or even onecommunity, repents from their sins, in their merit the exile will end, and Hashem will bring Mashiach.”

It won’t take the whole world. If Hashem sees even one corner of His world where people are accepting His Kingdom and doing His wishes, it could influence the whole world.

This Rosh Hashana, let’s join forces and strengthen each other to accept Hashem’s Kingdom upon ourselves and commit to be better servants. Perhaps, we can be that one community who will inspire Hashem to bring the Mashiach right away!


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