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Torah Commentary
Ki Tavo (September 8, 2012)

Rabbi David M. Posner

TOWARDS THE END of this week’s portion, Moses says to the children of Israel: “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs and those great wonders; but the Lord did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day.”

Now, this seems most strange. After all, the Israelites had experienced the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah, to name but two of the more impressive miracles. How is it that they only could appreciate these things now…40 years later?

Rashi gives an explanation. He says, “No person appreciates fully his teacher’s wisdom before forty years.” So now, finally, after the Israelites have studied Torah for 40 years from Moses are they in a position to understand it properly. And from now on, God will be strict with them regarding their Torah observance.

And that is exactly why, in Pirkei Avot — the Sayings of the Father’s — we read, “At 40 years, one reaches understanding.” And the Tosfos, a major commentary, says this actually means after 40 years of education — not after 40 years of age. Think about that! With that standard, some of us would be very old by the time we finished 40 good years of education. And let’s be honest: Many of us do feel that we have some kind of a grip on what is going on — before the age of 60. But, if that is the case, how can we explain these passages?

To get some insight into this, let’s consider the prayer in the morning service right before the Sh’ma: Ahavah Rabbah. It says, in part: “Our Father, merciful Father, thou who art ever compassionate, have pity on us and inspire us to understand and to discern, to perceive, learn and teach, to observe, do, and fulfill gladly all the teachings of thy Torah. Enlighten our eyes in thy Torah; attach our heart to thy commandments, unite our hearts to love and revere thy name, so that we may never be put to shame.”

What is the point of the second sentence? It seems redundant. But the commentators explain: The first sentence implies merely an intellectual acceptance of Torah, while the second implies a deeper, emotional acceptance as well. It implies internalizing the Torah, so that our eyes see things and our heart feels things from a Torah viewpoint. Such a viewpoint will then become, as time goes on, our gut reaction.

At this time of the year, we are beginning to become concerned about how we will fare on the New Year…the Yom HaDin…the Day of Judgment. But I think the situation here often is misrepresented. Many people imagine being judged in Heaven on a kind of point system or imagine a scale, weighing their good deeds against their bad, which finally will be tipped one way or the other.

I believe that this is the wrong idea. My own belief — and there is support for this idea in the writings of the late great Lithuanian Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin — is that we will be judged on one thing and one thing only: what kind of person we are. The point is that the kind of person that we ultimately are depends on how strongly we have observed the ethical commandments — the mitzvot. It is like the situation of an athlete: The more conscientiously he or she has trained, the more likely he or she is to win the race. Ultimately, the kind of athlete he or she is depends on his or her whole history of training. So it is with us. The kind of people we are depends on our whole history of internalizing Torah and mitzvot.

This also could be a way of understanding the statement in today’s portion in which dire things are predicted because, in the words of the Torah, “You did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart.” The important thing is not simply to serve God but to serve God gladly. And we only can do that to the extent that we have internalized the Torah. Only then will we have “a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.”

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