Parshat KiTavo: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8; Isaiah 60:1-22
By Howard Lupovitch
This week’s Torah portion underscores the complexity in the relationship between God and Israel, specifically the notion of chosen-ness.
The heart of it is the juxtaposition of Divine blessings and curses, which could be termed promises and threats. The blessings/promises, which boil down essentially to a life of contentment in the Land of Israel, are followed by the tochecha, a protracted admonishment by Moses of the people of Israel that threatens to withhold these blessings if the people transgress.
As such, this protracted recitation of blessings and curses weaves together the two layers of God’s covenant with the chosen people: a covenant based on a Divine promise, described in the Book of Genesis and one based on an array of obligations or mitzvot, described beginning in the Book of Exodus.
In the covenant with the patriarchs, God promises Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a multiple of descendants “as numerous as the stars in the heavens” and possession of the Land of Israel (“the promised land”) in perpetuity. This dual promise was given unconditionally in recognition of Abraham’s infinite loyalty as an entitlement to his descendants, the chosen people.
By the time we get to the Book of Exodus, entitlement based on an unconditional promise has already proven to be a less than adequate guarantee that Abraham’s descendants will be worthy of reaping the eternal reward. On the contrary, the children of Israel demonstrate their unworthiness and lack of faith repeatedly.
This necessitated a second dimension be added to the promissory covenant with Abraham, an “obligatory covenant,” based on a series of commandments given by God at Mount Sinai. It is this conditional relationship Moses explains multiple times in the Book of Deuteronomy.
The most well-known iteration is the second paragraph of the Shema, which lays out this conditional relationship succinctly: rain, crops and a life of happiness and contentment if you fulfill the commandments; drought, hunger and a life of desolation if you do not.
In short, entitlement to the benefits of chosenness becomes tied to the fulfillment of mitzvot; failure to do so results in God withdrawing the rewards, regardless of the promise to Abraham.
Thus, the complexity of God’s relationship with Israel: The people are chosen unconditionally but required continuously to prove themselves worthy of chosen-ness.
Beyond the daunting nature of rebuke lies the encouraging fact that whether any of this comes to fruition depends entirely on the actions, the deliberate, chosen actions of the people of Israel.The latter is never consigned to be passive recipients of a Divine promise but tasked to be active participants in determining their destiny.
Dr. Howard N. Lupovitch is director of WSU’s Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.