Author's Note on Parshat Ki Tavo
Date: August 31, 2018
20 Elul 5778
In Parshat Ki Tavo, the Torah describes a process known as the “confession of the tithes.” After one has finished offering all the appropriate and required tithing, one is to say to G-d things like “I have given to the stranger, the orphan and the widow according to whatever commandment You commanded me; I have not violated any of Your commandments and I have not forgotten … I have listened to the voice of G-d and I have acted according to everything You have commanded me.” Then, one is to say: “Hashkifa mim’on kodshecha” “Look down from your holy abode” and bless the people of Israel and the land flowing with milk and honey. (There is even a custom for the Torah reader to raise his voice when reciting that phrase.)
Why do we have to tell G-d to look at us? Is there a time when G-d is not otherwise looking or paying attention? (If so, imagine what we could get away with.) Does He only look at us when called upon?
In a comment on Bereishit, Chapter 18 verse 16, Rashi commented on the use of the verb “Hashkaif” for “to look.” Rashi pointed out that the verb Hashkaif is always associated in the Torah with a negative impulse, where G-d looks down to punish (see also Psalm 53, verse 3), except for the time it is used in Ki Tavo. Here it is used in a positive way to seek G-d’s blessing. This shows the power of our giving Tzedakah (a type of tithing) in that by showing G-d what we are willing to do for Him, we are able to affect G-d’s attitude toward His people for the good.
To put it in another context, imagine you are preparing for a big celebration. You get all dressed up in your finest clothes. You then turn to your spouse (or parent or friend) and say “How do I look?” Did your spouse not otherwise look at you? Of course not. What you really mean is “Hey – look at me; give me a blessing; tell me I look good.”
The story is told of Sadie, a middle aged woman who had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. While on the operating table, she had a near death experience. During that experience she saw G-d and asked if this was the end. G-d said no and told her she had at least another 30 years to live.
Upon her recovery she decided to stay in the hospital and have some plastic surgery. She even had someone come in and give her a complete makeover. After all, if she had another 30 years to live, she figured to make the most of it. She walked out of the hospital feeling great but was killed by a speeding ambulance. She complained to G-d: “I thought you said I had another 30 years!” G-d replied: “Is that you Sadie? I didn’t recognize you.”
In Ki Tavo, after we get spiritually “dressed up,” we ask G-d to look down and recognize us. But sometimes even that is not enough. The question is – have we truly done what we need to do to be recognizable to G-d as someone worthy of His attention.
Another interesting aspect of this “confession of the tithes” in Ki Tavo is that our recital of confession is entirely in the singular – “I” have given to the stranger, “I” have not violated the commandments, “I” did as G-d has commanded, etc. But when it comes to the request for a blessing, we are supposed to seek blessing for the entire people of Israel. It would seem to make sense to ask for personal benefit and protection having explained the personal individual effort expended. The Torah is teaching us that through each of our individual actions, we have the ability to influence and change the entire world for a blessing.
This Saturday night, we recite Selichot – the penitential prayers that introduce the intense preparation time before the High Holy Days. Interestingly, during the High Holy Days we get dressed in our finest clothes (“How do I look?”). More importantly, it is a time to clean up our spiritual appearance. It is a time, according to Chassidic thought, that “the King is in the field” and accessible to all of us. So we need to become recognizable to G-d (our King) through honest Teshuva (repentence), Tefilah (prayer), and Tzedakah (charitable acts). Then we can demand of G-d “Hashkifa mim’on kodshecha” “look down from Your holy place” and bless us and the entire people of Israel (spiritually and physically) for a year of life, health, and success.