Ki Tavo(Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
When the Jewish people entered the land, they were to assemble at two mountains for a new acceptance of the Torah, but the command to do so is found already in this week's Torah Portion. Twelve commandments were to be enumerated, and the people would acknowledge publicly that blessings await those who observe them and curses will befall those who spurn them. Each command discusses a specific act with the exception of the final one. It states: "Cursed is the one who will not uphold the words of this Torah, to perform them; and all the people shall say, 'Amen' ." (1)
The commentators ask, what does this seemingly vague command involve? The Ramban brings a Talmud Yerushalmi that answers this question. "Rav Assi says in the name of Rebbi Tanchum Bar Chiya, one who learnt, taught, guarded, and performed the Torah, but he had the power to strengthen the Torah and did not, is considered 'accursed.'... Even someone who was completely righteous in his actions but did not strengthen the Torah in the face of those who do not keep it - he is considered 'cursed.' (2)
The Chofetz Chaim wrote an entire book, 'Chomas Hadas', which was dedicated to urging people to do more to strengthen the Torah against the increasing tide away from Torah that threatened the very future of Torah observance. In his introduction, 'Chizuk Hadas' he enumerates four separate ways in which every Jew is obligated by the Torah to strive to increase observance amongst our fellow Jews.(3) The fourth is based on this Talmdu Yerushalmi; the Chofetz Chaim argues strongly that this obligation applies to any Jew who has the power to influence others. If a person does so, then he receives the blessings that were said on Mount Gerizim and if he does not he will suffer the curses of Mount Eival. He points out how awesome this idea is: The Levites turned to six hundred thousand people who stood on the two mountains and blessed the people who would keep these commands and everyone present answered 'amen'. Consequently, anyone who tries to uphold the Torah is blessed by the Priests, Levites and six hundred thousand people, God's agreement.
Rav Yitzchak Berkovits notes that by looking at some of the other sins enumerated in the curses we can begin to get a clearer idea of the seriousness of the failure to uphold the Torah. Amongst the other curses are: one who makes a graven image, one who degrades his parents, one who commits grave immorality, and one who strikes his fellow in private. There would be an inclination to think that failure to uphold the Torah is not such a terrible sin but we see from here that one who fails to uphold the Torah is placed in the same category as one who commits such terrible sins as those mentioned in the curses at Mount Eival. And the opposite is also true; a person who even tries to influence others to increase their observance is greatly praised by the Torah.
The Yerushalmi brings an example from the Books of the Prophets of a person who epitomized the desire to fulfill the command of this verse. King Josiah was brought up in a generation that had no knowledge of Torah to the extent that he had never seen a Torah scroll. When he was a mere child one of the Priests, Chilkiah, found a Torah scroll in the Temple courtyard, it was rolled to the verse, "cursed is the one who will not uphold the words of this Torah." When Yoshiyahu heard this he rent his clothes and said, "alei lehakim," which means 'it is my responsibility to uphold the Torah.' (4) He proceeded to do so and successfully reintroduced Torah learning and observance to the forlorn people.
The Netsiv discusses the actions of Josiah in the context of his own time. There was already a great flow of people leaving Torah for other ideologies and there seems to have been a difference of opinion as to how the remaining Torah true Jews should react to this. Some people believed that the best course of action was to hide away and focus on their own personal Divine Service. The Netsiv wrote a responsa in which he strongly disagreed with this approach. He believed that this was not the time to focus on one's own spirituality whilst the rest of the world was being spiritually destroyed.(5) One of his proofs for his attitude is the story of Josiah. The Prophet says that after Josiah found the Torah scroll, he said to the Priests and Levites, "... now go and serve Hashem your God and his people, Israel.' (6) In what way did he mean for them to serve Hashem and his people? The Netsiv explains, that up till that time, the only people who had maintained their spiritual level were the Priests and Levites and that they had retreated into their own world to avoid the perils of their surroundings. They had devoted themselves to their own spiritual development and relationship with God but had neglected the rest of the people. Josiah now urged them to change their behavior and to spread Torah to those who had lost their connection to it. He said that by serving the people in bringing them closer to Torah they would be simultaneously serving God because that was his desire at this time.
The Netsiv argues that just as in Josiah's time there was a great need for the observant Jews to uphold the Torah, the same was true in his time, where people were leaving Torah in droves. If the Netsiv's era could be compared to that of Josiah, then, all the more so the case is true in our time. There has never been a situation where so many Jews are so distant from any form of Torah than now. A survey was taken in 1990 of the state of observance in the United States. Here are some of its results.(7) In 1950 the intermarriage rate in USA was 6%, by 1990 it was 52% and rising. 2 million Jews do not identify themselves as Jews. 2 million self-identified Jews have no Jewish connection whatsoever. For every wedding between two Jews, two intermarriages take place. 625,000 US Jews are now practicing other religions. 11% of US Jews go to synagogue. Needless to say the situation is far worse now than it was in 1990. In Elul we all try to make a self-assessment of our observance of the mitzvot. We learn from this week's Portion that an essential part of that self-assessment is that each person should ask himself 'am I doing enough to uphold the Torah?'
The Chofetz Chaim, in his own life, demonstrated his fear of being judged for not doing enough to strengthen Torah observance on many occasions. On one occasion, during a three week stay in Riga he convinced 300 shopkeepers to close their stores on Shabbat.(8) Another time, upon hearing from Jewish soldiers that on Pesach they had eaten bread, he immediately set out to write a book, Machane Yisroel for Jewish soldiers which quickly met with considerable success. He founded and raised money for a Kosher Kitchen Fund, and he personally tried to come in contact with soldiers to influence them. A group of soldiers used to pass through his hometown of Radin every summer. The Chofetz Chaim invited them to a banquet in his home, received them with fatherly love, and gave them a talk to encourage their Torah observance.(9)
The Chofetz Chaim constantly emphasized that there are many ways in which a person can strive to uphold the Torah, whether it be by giving lectures in front of large audiences, establishing places of learning, or befriending those that are distant from Torah. Each person is blessed with unique abilities to help bring others closer to Torah. At present, there are outreach organizations that are providing many avenues through which people can increase their involvement in outreach, even on a part-time basis. They offer classes in outreach training, opportunities to learn one-on-one with a secular study partner, and many other options. With the High Holy Days fast approaching may we all be able to learn from Josiah and say that we genuinely tried to uphold the Torah.
1. Ki Savo, 27:26.
2. Yerushalmi, Sotah, 7:4.
3. Chizuk Hadas, 4th maamer, p. 18-20.
4. Medrash HaGadol, Devarim, 27:26.
5. Shut Meishiv Davar, 1st Chelek, Simun 45. In that teshuva he also highly praises the essay of the Chasam Sofer, 'Pisuchay Chosam' in Chasam Sofer's hakdama to Yoreh Deah in which he strongly argues that there are times when a person should reduce his own personal growth to help those who are spiritually lacking.
6. Divrei Hayamim II, 35:3.
7. Taken from the National Jewish Population Survey.
8. Ibid., p.200.
9. Ibid., p.199.