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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Ki Tavo: When all days become today

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

This week’s reading brings the legal section of Deuteronomy to an end. The last of the laws that Moses summarises have to do with tithes to the Levites and the poor. He also sets down a striking declaration to be made by every pilgrim, each year, when they bring the first of their ripened fruits to the Temple. Our reading then transforms into a lofty sermon, concerning blessings and curses, that continues to escalate into a new covenant to be sealed (in next week’s reading) between God and the Jewish people, in the plains of Moab, before the death of Moses.

Plains of Moab

One detail I want to focus on, in particular, this week, concerns the chronology of our reading. Having (to all intents and purposes) completed the legal content of his teachings, Moses declares:

The LORD your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.

Deuteronomy is set at the end of the life of Moses, but most of the laws of Deuteronomy had been commanded much earlier. Indeed, the meaning of the word “Deuteronomy” is Greek for second law because most of its laws are repetitions and summaries of laws that appear in the earlier books of the Torah. Indeed, Deuteronomy was known, among the Rabbis as Mishne Torah, which means the Torah repeated. So the laws that Moses had just summarised were not given on “this day”, they had been given much earlier.

Perhaps we shouldn’t make too big an issue out of this question. The next two verse clarify matters somewhat:

You have affirmed this day that the LORD is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the LORD has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments.

The idea isn’t that these laws were literally given on the day that Moses spoke. Rather, the idea is that the people are, on that very day, recommitting themselves to a covenant with God, and God is, so to speak, recommitting himself to them.

But the word “today” keeps coming back.

Moses commands the people to observe the law that they’re being given today, namely: to erect large stone pillars, covered in plaster, and inscribed with words of Torah, in the land of Israel after they pass over the river Jordan. They should construct an altar there too.

Then Moses tells them something else they have to do, once they’ve crossed over the river Jordan. Some tribes will stand on Mount Gerizim – to represent the blessings of the Torah. Some tribes will stand on Mount Ebal – to represent the curses. The Levites will stand in the middle. They have a text to read:

Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by the LORD, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret — And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he who insults his father or mother — And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark — And all the people shall say, Amen....

And then the blessings begin. But is this still the script? Is it still the Levites speaking? Nobody is being told to say "Amen" anymore. It reads:

Now, if you obey the LORD your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.

On which day? When is God commanding us? At Mount Sinai? As Moses is speaking, in the plains of Moab? Or, in the future, when the Israelites are already in the land? Is this still the script that the Levites will read? Or is this now just Moses speaking? Who is the “I” in this verse referring to? Is it Moses? If this is still the script to be read in the future, after the Israelites cross the Jordan, does it refer to the Levites, to the high priest, or maybe to Joshua? Moses, remember, would be dead by then.

We could turn to the book of Joshua to see what actually happened. What was the text that they read? But all we see over there is this:

All of Israel—stranger and citizen alike—with their elders, officials, and magistrates, stood on either side of the Ark, facing the Levitical priests who carried the Ark of the LORD’s Covenant. Half of them faced Mount Gerizim and half of them faced Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded them of old, in order to bless the people of Israel. After that, he read all the words of the Teaching, the blessing and the curse, just as is written in the Book of the Teaching. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua failed to read in the presence of the entire assembly of Israel, including the women and children and the strangers who accompanied them.

Some details are puzzling. Why was Joshua reading, and not the Levites? Why were the people facing their mountains rather than standing on them? But our question about the length of the text that was read receives no answer. Clearly, part of the book of Deuteronomy (indeed, part of this week's reading), was read in the ceremony. But how much of it?

After Moses describes the curses to which all of the people say “Amen” (in chapter 27), the text goes on and on (in chapter 28), relaying multiple blessings and a litany of terrifying curses. Were they also part of the script that was read on the other side of the Jordan? Rabbi David Altschuler (otherwise known as the Metzudat David) argues that it was, but it isn’t terribly clear.

Was this verse read, between the two mountains, in the days of Joshua:

The LORD will make you the head, and not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom—if only you obey and faithfully observe the commandments of the LORD your God that I enjoin upon you this day

And if that verse was read, to which day did the word “today” refer? To the day upon which it was read? To the day upon which Moses first said it, on the plains of Moab? To the day, forty-years earlier, upon which the Israelites actually received the law at Mount Sinai?

The second set of curses in this week's reading begin in chapter 28, straight after the blessings. Were they also read at the ceremony, in the days of Joshua? Once again the Metzudat David argues that they were.The passage begins:

But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect

If it was part of the script, then the same questions apply. To which day does “today” refer?

At least three days are vying for being the referent of the word “today” in many of these verses:

(1) the day of the revelation at Sinai, (2) the day on which these words were taught by Moses, and (3) the day on which (at least some of) these words were read aloud in a national ceremony in the days of Joshua.

This is what the Midrash says:

“The LORD your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules” (Deut. 26:16). What is the meaning of "this day"? Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not given a command to Israel until now? And was not this the fortieth year (since they left Egypt), as stated [in the introduction to the book of Deuteronomy] (Deut. 1:3), “And it came to pass in the fortieth year….” Then what is the meaning of the words, “this day?” Simply that Moses spoke to Israel as follows, “On each and every day, let the Torah be dear to you, as if you had received it this day from Mount Sinai.” Moreover, it is written in another place (Deut. 4:9), “make them known to your children….” Then it is written, “the day that you stood before the Lord [your God at Horeb].”

“The LORD your God commands you this day...” It doesn’t matter when this verse is read. It is Moses speaking to you. And he’s telling you that, whatever the date on your calendar, you should view yourself as if today is the day on which the Torah was given. You should view yourself as if you’re standing at Sinai. And that’s why we’re commanded to teach our children about the day that we stood at Sinai, even though it happened long before we were born. We’re commanded to do so because we’re commanded to view ourselves as if we’re standing at Sinai each day.

“The LORD your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules...” Which laws and which rules? The Midrash continues:

“These laws,” these are the midrashic commentaries; “and these rules,” these are the court decisions. Another interpretation: “these laws” and “these rules”: include light and heavy [commandments], inferences from analogy, and fine points of scribal exegesis.

And everything comes from Sinai. Not just the words of the Penateuch but the decisions of future courts, the Midrashim, and the discoveries of later exegetes. We know that the Midrashim we have in our hands were written anywhere between the second and thirteenth centuries of the common era. We know that the Talmud didn’t arrive at its final form until (roughly) the eight century. But it’s all happening at the same time. It’s all happening at Sinai. And we can be simultaneous with that moment too, so long as we engage our imaginations. All of it is today.

“The LORD your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.” What happens when we do? The Midrash continues:

Rabbi Johanan said, “When anyone performs a single commandment faithfully, Scripture ascribes it to him as if it had been given [to him personally] from Mount Sinai, as it is stated (Deut. 26:16), ‘observe them faithfully.’”

Not only must we view ourselves as if we stood at Sinai, but if we keep the laws faithfully, then even God will join in the make-believe, and he’ll view us as if we stood there too.

The Midrash is sensitive to an ongoing ambiguity about time in our reading; an ongoing ambiguity of the meaning of "today". It seizes upon that ambiguity to make a fundamental point about the nature of religiosity. A religious person has to engage her imagination in order to escape the confines of time. We are to view each day as a personal Sinai.

I have an article forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion. In this article, I do something somewhat audacious. I attempt to offer a definition of religion. In so doing, I venture to succeed where Immanuel Kant, Rudolf Otto, John Dewey, and Emile Durkheim are widely recognised to have failed. Defining religion isn't easy.

Without going into the details of my proposal, a distinctive claim I advance is that religions and religiosity demand imaginative engagement.

The demand for imaginative engagement is often easy to see. Most religions have their own narrative canon – Judaism is no exception; the Bible has many stories to tell. To engage with a narrative, even if the narrative is true, is, first and foremost, to engage one’s imagination. It is to see the story unfold in the mind's eye. Admittedly, not all religions have a narrative canon. But even when they don’t, I ague that, invariably, a religion will call upon its adherents to engage their imagination in distinctive ways.

Zen Buddhism, for example, despite eschewing narrative, contains a meditative practice, known as zazen. To practice zazen you must try to enter a state of mind in which it will seem to you that you are your breath.

Various forms of make-believe are called for in the life of a Jew. According to Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, for example, we are not simply commanded to believe that God exists. Rather, we have to view ourselves as living in a world in which God exists, and to see ourselves as his creations. Now of course, according to Judaism, we do live in a world in which God exists, and we are God’s creatures. But that doesn’t mean that we automatically view ourselves as living in such a world, as his creatures. This requires engaging the imagination, even if only to see the world as we really believe it to be.

Howard Wettstein

Sometimes, we don’t have to believe the things we’re being asked to pretend. Today isn’t the day that the Torah was given. But Moses asks us to view it as if it is. Howard Wettstein talks about signing on to an image. Take the image of God judging us on Rosh Hashona. What does it means to sign on to that image? It is, I take it, to agree to structure your life through its prism, to engage your emotions with it, to make it your own, to choreograph your life with this image as part of your personal symbolic landscape. Books of judgement are open before the King of Kings even if, in reality, God has no need for books (it's all in the cloud after all). What religious people do, characteristically, is to engage in a very powerful and intimate way, with certain images, at certain times; to sign on to them.

But can it ever be rational to pretend the world is some way when you don’t also believe it? Yes, it can be. As long as you’re not deceiving yourself. V. S. Ramachandran is a renowned neuroscientist and physician. He is the first physician to have cured the pain of amputees’ phantom limbs. Phantom hands are often clenched so tightly that the phantom fingers and fingernails inflict unbearable pain upon the phantom palm. Many of these patients can’t escape the pain because their phantom fists are paralyzed in this eye-watering clench. Ramachandran discovered a surprisingly low-tech solution.

V. S. Ramachandran

He got his patients to put their remaining hands into a box, mimicking the position that they felt their phantom hands to be in. Inside the box was a mirror. When the patient looked down, he didn’t merely see his actual hand; he saw its reflection as well. This looked just like seeing his actual hand and his phantom. By slowly opening his only real hand, he could make it look as if he was opening both of his “hands.” And, sure enough, this deceived the brain into thinking that the phantom hand had opened. This relieved the pain.

These patients aren’t mad. They know that they only have one real hand. They knew that the box contained a mirror—they must have worked that out! But the illusion (even though they knew that it was an illusion) was what the brain needed to behave appropriately in the real world.

“We were slaves in Egypt,” we say each Seder Night, “and the Lord our God took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” And then we read, “If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken us out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Do contemporary Jews really believe that however many thousands of years after the fact, they would still have been slaves to Pharaoh? There is no Pharaoh. Do they really believe that had they stayed enslaved, the only political institutions in the history of man to have lasted for that many millennia would have been the Pharaonic ones, which would still be going strong? This all seems highly unlikely.

But, then, later on in the Haggada, we read that “In every generation, a person is obliged to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” As if. The task isn’t to believe; the task is to make-believe.

If you walk around, constantly experiencing yourself as personally liberated by God, and you see all other people in the world suffering from forms of modern-day slavery as comrades who you can empathize with because you were once where they were; you will be transformed.

Indeed, as we have mentioned before, in an earlier post, these are the sorts of activities that can help to lift a person from mere religiosity into holiness.

But to cut a long story short, my point is this: it is one thing to believe in a religion; it is quite another thing to sign on. There is, I would argue, something defective about a person's religiosity if they believe in a creed but fail to engage the imagination; that would be a faith without a full-blooded religious psychology. It is by engaging the imagination that we transform a system of beliefs into a religion. This is, I think, in the wake of our Midrash, the insight that lies behind Moses’s repeated and ambiguous use of the word “today.” He wants us to imagine that all days are today, and every day we stand, together, at Sinai, to receive God's law anew.

One final occurrence of that word appears towards the conclusion of this week’s reading. Moses says:

You have seen all that the LORD did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country; the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet, until today, the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.

The simple way to read this text is in negative tones. Moses is berating his flock. However many wonders they’ve witnessed, their faith in God still hasn’t taken root. This is, indeed, how numerous commentators understand these words, taking the phrase “until today” to include today. Even today. Even after all this time. You still fail to take to heart the lessons of the wilderness years.

The Talmud, by contrast, understands the words “until today” to include every day of the last forty years until today, but no further. In other words, Moses was congratulating the people. “Finally,” he was saying “God has granted you the wisdom to understand.” From here, Rabba learns an important lesson:

Rabba said: Conclude from here that a person does not understand the thoughts of his teacher until after forty years.

It takes time for ideas to ferment. The lessons of history, especially, can’t be understood from too close.

Multiple Hassidic sources pay attention to the fact that in addition to eyes that see, and ears that hear, Moses speaks of a heart with which to understand. Now, of course, this isn’t surprising. In many times and places the heart, rather than the brain, was thought to be the seat of understanding. But, Hassidic Rabbis relate to the words of the Torah as timeless. Now that we know that the brain is what enables us to think (so long as our souls are embodied), it's legitimate to ask why Moses is talking about the heart.

What one finds in various Hassidic readings of our verse is the suggestion that an idea isn’t fully grasped until we engage with it, not merely intellectually, but also emotionally (see, for example, here, and here). And this is precisely one of the reasons that imagination is so central to the religious life. It helps to transform the cold propositional truths of a system of thought into the lived religious reality of the life of faith. It takes a heart to translate the output of the brain into a religion.

In this light we can find a new way to read Moses's talk of an understanding heart. In the previous generation, the Israelites related to Mount Sinai as a historical event. They didn’t need to imagine that they were there. They merely had to remember. But there was something missing in their religiosity to the extent that their imaginations lay dormant. And so Moses tells the second generation that only now do they get it. Only now has God given them a heart, rather than merely a mind, with which to understand. The second generation were closer to the religious ideal than was the first. No longer must they be shackled into relating to the stories of the Torah as cold historical fact; from now on, they could relate to it as a symbolic landscape within which to choreograph their lives. That was only possible from "today": the first day from which all subsequent days could be imagined as being one with Sinai.

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