By Shlomo Riskin
“Cursed be the individual who does not uphold the words of this Torah.” (Deut. 27:26)
Although I have been blessed with many magnificent students over my many decades of teaching, I shall never forget the piercing words penned by one of my most treasured students, who suddenly and inexplicably turned away from a Torah way of life. For a time he refused to answer any of my heartfelt entreaties for a dialogue – before eventually leaving a poem at my home. In part, it read:
Beloved teacher, both of us are often blind; you do not always see how much you taught me and I do not always see how much I learned from you. You think I took the Tablets of Testimony and threw them insolently at your feet. That’s not at all what happened. The commandments merely became too heavy in my hands, and they fell to the ground.
As a Torah educator, I still feel the searing pain of losing students such as this one, in whom I had seen so much potential. It led me to difficult questions of myself: Where had I gone wrong as an educator?
These questions bring to mind a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which announces blessings for those who observe specific Biblical commands, and curses for those who reject them. The final denunciation, however, “Cursed be the individual who does not uphold the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 27:26), is difficult to define.
In offering an answer, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 7:4) pointedly asks, in rhetorical fashion, “Is there then a Torah which falls down?” Rabbi Shimon Ben Halafta responds that the curse of not upholding the Torah actually refers to the earthly court, i.e. the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community!
The true mettle of a spiritual leader is tested when those in their care fall short in their observance. Moses demonstrates how a teacher is to react in such a scenario: upon witnessing the Jews serving the Golden Calf, he casts the Tablets of the Covenant to the ground, smashing them. He realized that as Israel’s shepherd, if the Jews departed from its ways as soon as his physical presence left them for just 40 days, he had caused the Torah to fall.
At that moment, God saw the profound responsibility that Moses took upon himself for the broken Tablets, and, according to the Yerushalmi (ibid.) placed within the heart of the chief among prophets the words of King Josiah: “It is upon me to uplift [the words of the Torah]”. Hence, the Almighty commands Moses to sculpt two tablets just like the earlier two which had been broken (Ex. 34:1).
This verse is the very source for the Oral Law, specifically unique to the Second Tablets (Midrash Shemot Rabba, ad loc.), and which consists of the input of the Sages in every generation to ensure that the Torah continues to be upheld. An important additional perspective comes from Nahmanides: the denunciation refers to someone who does not lift up the Torah in order to display it to the congregation, thus not showing its contents to everyone. “It is a mitzvah,” he writes, “for all Jewish people to see the Torah scroll, to bow in reverence, and to declare (per Deuteronomy 4:44) “And this is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Jewish people!”
We recognize this as the “lifting up” of the Torah Scroll (hagbaha as known to Ashkenazic Jews, or hakama, as it is called by Sephardic Jews). Beyond this literal interpretation, however, there is a profound message: every public Torah reading is a re-enactment of the Revelation at Sinai, when the Jewish people took upon themselves the acceptance of the Divine covenant with the words, “We shall do and we shall internalize.” Hence, when the Torah is lifted up at each public reading, those present proclaim their acceptance of this Torah, and re-experience that moment of Divine communication and national commitment.
According to Nahmanides, the failure to “display the Torah to the community” is in denying the people an opportunity to re-experience the exhilaration of receiving the Torah. My mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l, maintained that an essential component of the mitzvah of teaching Torah in public is to do so in a charismatic and inspiring way.
The Torah “falls” when the Jewish People do not uphold its laws and values. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the spiritual leaders of every generation to see to it that the Torah becomes, in the eyes of the Jewish people, neither so light – of such little significance that it can be easily discarded – nor so heavy and onerous that it can hardly be borne. Those who teach God’s Torah must help every Jew feel and understand the loving embrace of Torah, the profound wisdom of Torah, the timeliness and timelessness of Torah.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.