Parshat Ki Tavo
18 Elul 5767
September 1, 2007
Six weeks have past since Tisha b\’Av, our day of national mourning over the loss of our sacred center, the Temple in Jerusalem. The days of mourning have given way to a time of transformation. God\’s words of consolation, found in the haftarot drawn from the prophet Isaiah which mark this period, have turned our somber mood into one of anticipation as we close in on the upcoming days of repentance and reconciliation with God. This moment on the calendar makes the opening words of this week\’s haftarah ever so poignant: \”Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Lord has shown upon you! Behold, Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick clouds the peoples; But upon you the Lord will shine, and His presence be seen over you\” (Verse 1-2)
This message is addressed to Jerusalem (or to the land of Israel as a whole), which is likened to a woman who sits in darkness because of her anguish and bereavement. God commands her to get up and to move into the light so that it might shine upon her. The message of this metaphor is clear. The time of the redemption is close. The exile is about to end and the light of God\’s redemptive power is about to become tangible. (A. Hakham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 635)
There does not seem to be any implication in this promise that reciprocal action is required on the part of those who will experience God\’s redemptive power. The people have suffered enough. They have mourned their losses and are in desperate need of God\’s saving \”light\”, a common message of the latter part of the book of Isaiah. This does not restrain a late midrash (~ 10th century or later) from putting the above verse in another context, with very different expectations: \”The Holy One blessed be He, will redeem the children of Israel for no other reason other than that they observe the Torah. And if they had not disregarded the Torah, they would never have been exiled. They said [to God]: Now that we have been exiled, redeem us and we will observe the Torah; for You have not given us the Torah for any reason other than that we observe it forever, as it is written [in the previous chapter of Isaiah]: \’And this shall be My covenant with them, said the Lord\’ (59:21), and if you fulfill this covenant, then [the result will be:] \’Arise, shine, for your light has dawned\’\” (Midrash Tehillim 119:34, addition found in the Saloniki printed ed. 1515; Buber ed. p. 497)
This midrash, building on the juxtaposition of the message in the previous chapter of Isaiah with the first verse of our haftarah, developed the idea of reciprocity in the relationship between God and His people. It is the contention of this midrash that the purpose of the Jewish people in this world is the observance of the Torah. Its relationship with God and its very wellbeing are dependent on their loyalty to the Torah. The midrash defines this relationship in terms of cause and effect. If the Jewish people leave the Torah, they will live in a state of exile; if they observe the Torah, their redemption is assured.
While we are often cynical about such causal explanations of events and history, we should bear in mind that much of life is governed by such rules. It should not surprise us then that for the author of this midrash loyalty to the Jewish plan for building \”God\’s society\” should be seen as the \”blueprint\” for establishing God\’s redemption in the world and the abrogation of this \”blueprint\” as a recipe for disaster. As we approach the Yamim Hanoraim – the Days of Awe, adherence to God\’s \”blueprint\” should be our first priority in our personal and national redemption.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp.
Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus .
Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: