Parshat Ki Tavo - Do We Uphold Torah?

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

Posted on 08/31/20

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Finally, the long-awaited moment has arrived. The book of Devarim forecasts the settlement of Israel, and the ensuing cultural challenges which this younger generation would face. Our specific parsha of Ki Tavo depicts the “entry ceremonies”- conducted immediately upon entry into the land. Chief among them is the recreation of Har Sinai upon the twin peaks of Gerizim and Eval. Unlike the original Har Sinai event, during which the Jews were passive recipients of Torah, at this stage, they actively participate in the ceremony, by announcing a list of fundamental Torah commandments. The Jewish mission to spread G-d’s presence ‘kicks into high gear’ as we enter the land of Israel; for this reason, the Torah is now translated into seventy languages.  Entry into Israel without reinforcing Torah and re-staging Sinai and is inconceivable.

Most of these “mitzvah declarations” surround essential commandments such as idolatry, sexual violation and judicial corruption. Surprisingly, the final pronouncement denounces someone who doesn’t “uphold the Torah- asher lo yakim". This concluding announcement appears redundant, as, obviously, a person who doesn’t adhere or uphold the Torah should be reprimanded. Which additional person is this final announcement referring to?  What type of behavior is considered not “upholding” Torah and conversely what type of behavior supports Torah?

The Ramban extracts three important values from this final declaration about upholding Torah. Recognizing that not everyone will fully succeed at comprehensive mitzvah observance or consistent Torah study, the Torah still demands basic identification with Torah study and halachik observance. By encouraging the “upholding of Torah” and condemning those who don’t, the Torah articulates three important principles:

1.Religious Conviction and Commitment

Religious identity demands acknowledgement of the authority and validity of Torah, and the adoption of full halachik compliance. Someone who sincerely and fully accepts every commandment, but whose implementation isn’t perfect, isn’t condemned. The condemnation is reserved for those who the deny the legitimacy of even one mitzvah. By acknowledging the authority of halacha and accepting the responsibility of halachik activity, a person has escaped this scathing denunciation of those who “don’t uphold” Torah or those who reject the platform of Torah.

Judaism is riveted upon the concept of commandments- we are born into this world as commanded beings; however, human nature is weak and frail, and we all, at some point, fail in our observance. Often, continued halachik failure disheartens us, generates unbearable guilt and, ultimately, drives people away from religious practice. Walking away from this religious pressure is, for some, the only escape from the mounting guilt and shame which religious imperfection generates. This first principle of the Ramban comforts us as we grow religiously and improve our mitzvah performance. Without excusing sin or exonerating religious imperfection, the Torah implicitly announces that those who “buy in” to halacha and accept the entire system of Torah are still partially religiously accomplished or successful. Ironically, a person who assiduously fulfills 612 mitzvot, but flatly rejects one mitzvah is subject to this condemnation- he hasn’t upheld the infrastructure of Torah. By contrast, someone who sincerely accepts the entire system, earnestly attempts to perform mitzvoth, but falls short due to limitations, internal anxieties, or external pressures, still remains firmly within the orbit of Sinai. 

2.Upholding Torah Standards in Others

The Ramban stresses a second value- reinforcing communal religious excellence. He alludes to various socio-political bodies such as a king, a beit din, or other institutions which typically enforce communal religious standards. Sadly, today, many of these official bodies no longer function.

In the absence of a king or beit din, oftentimes, social norms and expectations can foster communal religious excellence and discourage deviant behavior. Communities which have adopted a Charedi-leaning approach, have succeeded in creating 'communities of expectations' or communal codes of behavior. Though this may come at the price of greater individual expression, it does succeed in steadying Torah study and mitzvah adherence. Alternatively, communities which grant greater personal latitude and impose fewer communal codes, face greater challenges in maintaining social expectations. Often, the attempt to forge societies of inclusion, relaxes social expectations and diminishes social pressure for enhanced religious commitment. It is often difficult to balance between these various important communal values.

Beyond ideological differences, the size of a community also matters. Typically, smaller communities are better able to create common or shared communal fabrics and are more capable of implicitly exerting social “encouragement”. By contrast, the emergence of Jewish mega-communities has generated impressive resourced-communities, but these large and ‘faceless’ settings do not easily allow for communal influencing of religious practice or experience.

3.The final element of upholding Torah is the respect we demonstrate toward those who study Torah. We may not all be capable of advanced and extensive Torah learning, but we are all capable of backing Torah study and ratifying those who devote their lives to it. This warrant mandates two extremely important “attitude adjustments”:

Firstly, our attitude toward those who commit to full-time Torah study must be approving. The merits and challenges of lifestyles dedicated exclusively to Torah study, can certainly be explored and even scrutinized. However, if we are “upholders” of Torah, then those who commit to Torah study, deserve our admiration and endorsement. This does not, and should not, preclude the voicing of important disagreements and even critiques. However, critique cannot bleed into wholesale dismissal or animosity. If we love Torah and fashion ourselves as upholders, we should stand in admiration of those who study Torah full time.

A second manifestation of supporting Torah experience is the support of communal Torah organizations. One of the most pressing issues facing modern Jewish communities is the exorbitant cost of Jewish education. Presumably, this challenge will only stiffen in the post Covid-19 world. Impressive and imaginative minds are searching for creative solutions for this challenge. It would certainly be presumptuous and disrespectful for an Israeli, who operates in a completely different and more affordable educational environment, to comment upon the practical or financial aspects of this difficult dilemma.

Attitudinally, however, whatever levels of support and tuition are affordable, should be viewed as a manner of upholding Torah rather than mere payment for educational services. Tuition or Synagogue membership dues aren’t just fees for services but affirmation of our role as upholders of Torah.