Ki Tavo (Rashi)
For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives at my blog for September 2006.
“A Wandering Aramean”
The opening section of this parasha is the Vidduy Bikkurim, the declaration recited upon bringing the first fruits to the Temple, which contains a capsule account of the enslavement in Egypt and the Redemption, ending with being brought to the Land of Israel and enjoying its bountiful produce. This passage is the basis for the midrash that lies at the heart of the Passover Haggadah—the narration of the Exodus story per se that follows the lengthy preliminaries (which in many homes take up much or even most of the Seder evening). The interpretation of the very first phrase in the first verse presents special problems. Rashi’s interpretation here, based on the Sifrei, is essentially the same as that of the Haggadah:
Deut 26:5. “And you shall respond and say… A wandering Aramean lost my father [or: was my father], and he went down to Egypt, and dwelt there few in numbers…” Rashi: “A wandering Aramean lost my father.” He recalls here the kindness of the Omnipresent… Laban wished to uproot all when he pursued Jacob. And because he thought to do so, God considered it as if he had done it. For in the case of the nations of the world, the Holy One blessed be He considers a [bad] thought as tantamount to an act.
There are three problems here. First of all, the midrashic interpretation of the opening phrase goes against all rules of Hebrew grammar and syntax. As Ibn Ezra, perhaps the greatest of the pashtanim, the literal exegetes of the Torah, points out, oved is an intransitive verb; had it referred to Lavan, it ought to have read ארמי מאביד/מאבד אבי. Moreover, the sequel in the very next phrase, וירד מצרימה, “and he went down to Egypt,” can only refer to Yaakov; Rashi/Sifrei/the Haggadah thus have the verse changing its subject in mid-sentence, something in violation of any coherent syntax! Sforno and others concur with this view; but Targum Onkelos, on the other hand, agrees with Rashi. What we find here, then, is a clear preference of midrashic meaning over linguistic correctness.
Which brings us to the second problem: Why? What lies behind this midrashic motif, which makes Laban out to be the “bad guy”—even worse than Pharaoh himself! As the Haggadah puts it, continuing the above sentence: “Pharaoh only thought [to destroy] the males, but Laban wanted to uproot everything.” Israel Yuval, in his book Two Nations in Your Womb (pp. 84-86) suggests that Laban appears here as a prototype, either of the Romans (a play on Arami and Roma’i?), of Jesus, or of Christianity in general—perhaps in response to Melitos’ portraying Jesus as the wandering Jacob.
Third: the concluding sentence puts forward the thesis that, in the case of the non-Jewish world, God considers bad thoughts, or at least plans to do evil, as equivalent to wicked deeds. This is an interesting inversion of the well-know Rabbinic dictum that “God combines thought to act”—that is, if a person (i.e., a Jew) wished to do a good deed, but was prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond his control, it is considered as if he had nevertheless done so, and he is entitled to reward, etc. Here, this rule is turned on its head, stacking the odds against the non-Jew. Again: why? Offhand, such an attitude clearly reflects centuries of hostility, persecution, and at best subservient status vis-à-vis “the goyyim,” making it all but impossible to see them in a positive or even neutral light. (Today, at least in the West, most Jews enjoy a rather different experience. But it should be mentioned in this context that even here, in the tension-filled Middle East, one sometimes encounters simple human decency that crosses these lines. Earlier this week, an Israeli Army officer somehow blundered into the main street of Jenin and, after a mob torched his car, were about to lynch him, as happened to two reservists in Ramallah in September 2000, at the very beginning of the present Intifada. Several members of the Palestinian police, at great physical risk to themselves, pushed back the mob and brought him to safety, thereby saving his life.)
Why Wasn’t Shimon Blessed?
The later part of this parasha contains a number of blessings and curses and covenantal ceremonies—no less than three separate such, plus several more in the coming parshiyot: the setting up of twelve giant stones upon which were written “the words of this Torah, clearly expounded” (27:1-8); the antiphonal recitation of a series of blessing and curses by all the tribes, aligned facing one another on the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal (27:11-26); and the awesome Tokheha or “Admonition,” the enumeration of the blessings that will accrue to the people if they obey God’s voice (28:1-14), and (in much greater detail!) the elaboration of the horrors that will befall them should they fail to do so (28:15-69)—a parallel to the conclusion of the laws in Leviticus with similar blessing and curses (Lev 26:3-46). We will comment on one Rashi in this section that elaborates upon a seemingly peripheral feature of this passage:
Deut 27:24. “Cursed is he who smites is neighbor in secret…” Rashi: this refers to malicious speech.
What is the guiding principle behind the selection of these particular sins for a public malediction? All of them are secret sins, ones which a person could commit without fear of public exposure: making and worshipping an idol in secret; misleading the blind; moving a stone marking the boundary with one’s neighbor’s property to gain some land; taking bribes, or distorting a judgment involving the weak and poor, who are powerless to protest; certain kinds of sexual transgressions which are particularly unlikely to be discovered; etc. In all these cases, there is need for special sanctions, to “put the fear of God” into the person who thinks that his deed will not bear social repercussions. The repeated use of the phrase “I am the Lord” in Leviticus 19 (Parshat Kedoshim) seems to serve a similar function to that of the curses here: namely, to remind the potential transgressor that there is a Judge and an Authority far above and beyond human society, who knows, judges, and punishes all of men’s actions.
If you like, one could say that this and similar passages signify a kind of transition from what anthropologists call a “shame culture” to a “guilt culture”—that is, one in which people eschew wrongdoing, not because they are worried about the public shame to which they would be exposed if their negative deeds were known, but because of an inner sense of guilt or conscience, of a belief in right and wrong independent of social sanctions. Or, to put it in more positive terms: a culture based upon personal responsibility and conscience, rather than upon external sanctions and disapproval. (The brazen hutzpah of our leaders, who think that by silencing those who battle governmental corruption they will eliminate it, suggests that our society still has a very very long way to go on this score.)
I find it significant that the above Rashi interprets “smiting one’s neighbor in secret” as speaking malicious gossip. Perhaps because an actual blow, which would leave a bruise, is more likely to be discovered (notwithstanding the proverbial wife abusers who take care to beat their women on concealed parts of the body); or perhaps because harmful speech is a more secretive, hidden, concealed activity. Rashi then comments upon the fact that there are only eleven curses here rather than, as might be expected, twelve, corresponding to the twelve tribes. (He evidently disregards verse 26, “Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah to do them…” presumably because it is a general phrase, a kind of overall summary; cf. Hizkuni). He suggests an interesting explanation:
I saw in R. Moshe ha-Darshan’s Yesod that there are eleven curses here corresponding to the eleven tribes, but there is no curse corresponding to Shimon, because he [Moses] did not intend to bless him before his death when he blessed the other tribes; therefore he did not wish to curse him.
Shimon has a long history of being the least favored of all the tribes/sons of Jacob. It was he, together with Levi, who initiated the massacre of the entire town of Shechem following the rape/kidnapping of Dinah and Shechem (Genesis 34); many commentators, by a process of elimination, identify him as the one who threw Joseph into the pit and even proposed murdering him (37:20); this view seems confirmed by Joseph’s later singling out of Shimon to be kept as hostage the first time the brothers returned to Canaan (42:24); and, finally, he received a negative deathbed blessing from Jacob (49:5-7).
But here, we find this negative attitude carried over to Moses’ time. Because he did not wish to bless him, he refrained from “cursing” him as well. To understand this more fully, we need to see Rashi’s comment on Vezot haberakha, Moses’ farewell blessing to the tribes, from which Shimon is pointedly excluded. But, Rashi notes, Shimon is nevertheless included by implication, within the rubric of the blessing of Judah:
Deut 33:7. “And this is for Judah, and he said: “Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah…” Rashi: Another thing. “Hear O Lord, the voice of Judah.” Here it alludes to the blessing for Shimon within the blessing of Judah (Sifrei). And even when they divided the Land of Israel, Shimon received [a portion] within the lot of Judah, as is said, “And from the territory of the sons of Judah, there was an inheritance for the Shimonites” (Josh 19:9). And why was he not given a blessing in his own right? Because he [Moses] had a grudge against him because of what he did in Shittim. Thus is it written in Aggadat Tehillim (Midrash Shohar Tov 90.3).
At Shittim the people were led astray by the seductions of the Midianite women, the central figure in this story being the “Israelite man” who publicly copulated with a Midanite woman in broad daylight, “in the eyes of Moses and in the eyes of the entire congregation” (Num 25:6)—perhaps in a special cubicle (קבה, an ambiguous word) set aside for sacred prostitution. The two of them were summarily killed by Pinhas. This man is then identified as none other than Zimri ben Salu, a prince of one of the clans of Shimon (v. 14). Mala sangria, “bad blood,” as a South American friend of mine would put it.